The Transcendental Melting Pot, and Other Theories of Irwin Tang
How I Became a Black Man. Self-published. 199 pp. $14.95
Irwin Tang is a social critic as easily as he is a writer. “How I Became a Black Man” is a question of the reader’s identity as much as it is a discovery of Tang. In fact, if you don’t leave this book at least one step closer to your own conscience, go back and start over. You didn’t read it right the first time.
Autobiographical fiction is not new, but Tang reinvents the subgenre as smoothly as he writes it. Each story is unique autobiographical, yet some are still to home video than to reality television. “Irwin Tang’s How I Became a Black Man” and “Burials and Upheavels,” the bookend segments, go so far as to refer to the main character as the author himself. The middle three are works of fiction, but it could be argued that much of these are also quite true to life, at the very least in the issues they discuss. While we can be confident that the plot of “The End of Tenses” is not taken from Tang’s life, we don’t know that he didn’t use the character of Christopher to express some of his own anxieties.
“thing” is by far the most metaphorical of the stories in the collection, following the travels of an unnamed object. Just as we’re confident in this object’s identity, the object itself moves on and we’re once again left with the question. While this may sound confusing, it’s quite possibly the most engaging of the stories. The constant push for clarity keeps the reader interested, because this object is also trying to find itself.
Of the eight stories, “Two, One,” is the most ambiguous. It may require going back and rereading a paragraph or two just to understand the concept of the story. What is probably the most confusing element of this story is that it doesn’t tie into the overall thesis of the book as well as the others do. With the exception of two Chinese boys trying to prove themselves as black men (highlighted more clearly in “Irwin Tang’s How I Became a Black Man”), the purpose of this story seems lost in comparison with the others.
Fortunately, “Two, One” is not memorable enough to affect the book as a whole. On the contrary, “Eatiful” is. There are some moments in literature where the reader is proud of his country and his race, and there are some moments in literature where the reader is ashamed. “Eatiful” is one of those moments for us white Americans to be ashamed of ourselves. Watching Tex get verbally beaten down by a college punk and his girlfriend is heartbreaking, and begs the question, “Who would do something like that?” It almost doesn’t seem possible, but this kind of cruelty happens every day. Sadly, part of what makes their treatment of him so harsh is that some wouldn’t believe it to be wrong. Tex will live to see another day, and twenty years later he may not even remember the incident. The college punk certainly won’t. But right now, in this moment, it’s torture.
My two favorite stories were “Cheese” and ‘The Sadie Hawkins Dance.” In the first, “Cheese,” the tension between tradition and change are finally brought to conversation, after what seems like a long and arduous period of silence. And what better catalyst is there than a wheel of cheese? If Mr. and Mrs. Shiu ever get a divorce, Mrs. Shiu can look back to this particular dinner and say to herself, “Yes. This is the night that changed everything.”
“The Sadie Hawkins Dance” is arguably the most completely story in the book. Not only does it fit into the book’s aesthetics and themes, but it just as easily stands alone. It comes full circle, from the inter-racial relationships, the definitions of manhood, and how those two push and pull in the mind of a boy just wanting a date to a school dance and getting much, much more than he bargained for. This single story is a novel, condensed and placed within the pages of another, an escape route from reality into the life of another family. Shh, don’t make a sound. You wouldn’t want them to know that you’re watching.
Tang, native to Austin, isn’t an author many have heard of, especially outside of the Lonestar State. But don’t let this dissuade you. Many times the best writing lies in the one who isn’t producing for an audience, but rather in spite of an audience. How I Became a Black Man is one of these books. Tang gives an intimate portrait of the human condition, specific to what he knows. The stories are heartfelt and honest, and leave the reader confident that she is not alone.