When You Learn the Alphabet

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Pub Date 15 Apr 2019 | Archive Date 01 Apr 2019
University of Iowa Press, University Of Iowa Press

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Kendra Allen’s first collection of essays—at its core—is a bunch of mad stories about things she never learned to let go of. Unifying personal narrative and cultural commentary, this collection grapples with the lessons that have been stored between parent and daughter. These parental relationships expose the conditioning that subconsciously informed her ideas on social issues such as colorism, feminism, war-induced PTSD, homophobia, marriage, and “the n-word,” among other things.

These dynamics strive for some semblance of accountability, and the essays within this collection are used as displays of deep unlearning and restoring—balancing trauma and humor, poetics and reality, forgiveness and resentment.

When You Learn the Alphabet allots space for large moments of tenderness and empathy for all black bodies—but especially all black woman bodies—space for the underrepresented humanity and uncared for pain of black girls, and space to have the opportunity to be listened to in order to evolve past it.

Kendra Allen’s first collection of essays—at its core—is a bunch of mad stories about things she never learned to let go of. Unifying personal narrative and cultural commentary, this collection...

Advance Praise

“Kendra Allen’s When You Learn the Alphabet is a roaring meditation on what black daughters in our nation do with what and how they’ve been taught. The book brilliantly animates the formal and informal education processes of becoming grown in America. Allen somehow manages to make explorations of colorism, language, trauma, war, and love sit comfortably next to one another. Allen’s book is an ambitious, dexterous collection that really obliterates convenient understandings of the sentimental in favor of dynamic, fleshy layers of soulful sincerity. It is a remarkable artistic achievement.”—Kiese Laymon, judge, Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, author, Heavy: An American Memoir

“Kendra Allen will not, as she writes, make anyone feel good at her own expense. Nor will she let herself be comforted at the expense of others. Instead, she brilliantly writes her tender origins into history, creating for future readers a complex sense of self-recognition missing from her own past.”—Hali Felt, University of Alabama

“Every generation has its seer, a writer of radical, fierce talent who tells it true, who writes the being and identity like a punch in the gut. Kendra Allen is this generation’s sharpshooter. To think: this is her first book. We are witnessing the birth of this astonishing star.”—Jenny Boully, author, Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life

“Kendra Allen’s When You Learn the Alphabet is a roaring meditation on what black daughters in our nation do with what and how they’ve been taught. The book brilliantly animates the formal and...

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Featured Reviews

A collection of essays autobiographical, written in a painfully sincere and poignant prose, that "unifies personal narrative and cultural commentary" and deals with the theme of family ties and of social dynamics.

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This book is a collection of essays. But it's so much more than that and I know that I cannot do it justice. When you learn the alphabet is composed of these fragments of themes that compose the sentence of life. She's too black to be considered beautiful, too cool to not be like other girls in the eyes of men but when in the realization of her faults and pavement to grow, too female; a word uttered in repugnance. This book deals with a lot of powerful themes; colour scale of beauty; the mold of women; feminism viewed as evil; parenthood/family; police brutality; racial profiling; objectified black women that are supposed to represent a win; normalized hate culture; the careless use of the n-word in all settings and what it really means; homophobia/transphobia; exclusion on representation in the lgbtq+ community; fragile masculinity; mental illness and so many more topics that are fundamental. This book is so incredibly raw, that's because it's real. It's not fiction. If I could, I would quote this entire book but it's better if you read it yourself. "Black girl going too fast, I know nothing else mattered" "Because a 14-year-old’s I don’t care as long as they don’t try to talk to me sounds at 23, a lot like, I accept you, I just don’t agree with your lifestyle. As if my heterosexual lifestyle is defaulted as better, as cleaner, as any more successful. As if my cisgendered heterosexuality is the only thing worthy of representation and open conversation" "Black feminism makes me feel as if I should be grateful to just be seen, no matter how I’m being shown, because who knows when, or if, I will be considered again." "They always win for their pain, they are never happy or revolutionary, they are always punished because they are black, and they are always ruined and gutted because they are women because society cannot imagine any other way for them to exist." - about black women "winning" prizes and praise "What am I complaining for, is what she was saying to me, physical shackles are no longer around my ankles; they are just wrapped around my mind." "I didn’t realize white people expected me to thrive in their representations of my blackness."

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I`m not used to reading essays, but i found this book to be intriguing in its subject matter and HIGHLY educational without being boring!! It really made me think, the essays are really compelling and raw, even if sometimes the subject is difficult and complex, going through it was easy and i feel like after reading this i`m aware of a lot of issues i was not aware of before, i REALLY think this book is a must read, to be honest!!

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I devoured this new collection of smart, witty, funny poetry and poetic essays on race and color, that also incorporate the n word (that Eminem went his entire rap career without saying), degrees of fatherlessness, multifaceted love, and the utilitarian inception of crack. I can't believe the day I read about Kendra Allen crediting black gay community storylines in shows such as Empire, actor Jussie Smollett who plays a black gay musician in Empire, is nearly killed in a MAGA hate crime attack. The world needs to listen to Kendra Allen, she knows what she's talking about, and she makes sense.

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Like most people, I was distracted from reading this book by a gallery of pretty covers and romance novels, but when I got down to it, I could not stop taking in each word, each emotion, each frustration as though the author were peeling off my skin, layer by layer and telling me as it is. Thanks Netgalley for the eARC, if ever there's a book that I wish I could quote word for word in a review, it's got to be this one, but there's something called reading the fine line...and towing it.

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I know I'm probably not the target audience for this book, but I think it is always a good idea to read outside your comfort zone.  This book is certainly outside my usual reading, and I recommend it for anyone wondering what the other side thinks. Though I'm not a black woman, seeing issues from Allen's side is eye-opening.  I know she will have a different view on things as she experiences things differently than I do, but to have her talk about absent fathers and casual racism from someone who lived it is different than "knowing". I like how Allen gave the people in her life context, a reason for doing what they did, even if what they did was unacceptable.  This context makes them people, not constructs from the past that can be ignored or downplayed.  These are real people, with their own hopes and dreams, that hurt the world around them with selfishness and immaturity.   I recommend this book to anyone looking to broaden their horizons.

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This is a beautiful, thoughtful, smart, and honest collection of essays that hit you right to the core. Kendra Allen is wise beyond her years and probably doesn't even realize it. Often when I read essay collections I have ones that I love, ones that I could leave, and ones that are just good. All of the essays in this collection I loved. Allen covers a wide range of topics that relate to what it means to be a Black woman in America. For those who are living this experience, I'm sure they will find a kindredness in this work, a knowing, and a sense of "I hear you." And for those who are not living this experience, you will find your eyes opening to and take so many more steps toward understanding what the experience is - no matter how much you have already read on the topic. Allen puts a real vulnerability onto the page and there was such strength in her honesty and familial love when she talks about the pain and struggle of her parents war induced PTSD. I loved this book.

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I really enjoyed this unique essay collection as it was written from a multicultural perspective. It was very well and beautifully written.

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