November 25, 2020

Caught Between Terror and Joy: On Melissa Valentine’s “The Names of All the Flowers”

By Cord Brooks THE FIRST HALF OF Melissa Valentine’s debut memoir, The Names of All the Flowers, is framed by two different renderings of one familiar American scene: a pair of children crouched on the sidewalk in front of their house, tracing their names in wet cement. In the book’s opening pages, the children — Valentine and her older brother Charles Jr., or Junior — are seven and 11, respectively. It’s summertime, and he walks ahead of her toward the block drying rapidly in the Oakland sun. When they’ve both scraped their initials into the sidewalk, “[w]e look down at our work, proud. […] Now we are permanently here.” Here is a neighborhood like many in California, wedged between distinct areas of poverty and affluence: on one side, the streets of West Oakland, teeming with violence and a crack epidemic; on the other, the wealthy, hilly enclaves of Rockridge and Piedmont. It is on a particularly well-kept, flowery street where the Valentines stick out, both for their overgrown lawn and the rusty Camaro parked in their driveway, and for the eccentricity of their clan: six kids to a white Quaker dad — a scruffy landscaper from Pennsylvania — and a black Alabaman mom who works nights at the post office and naps all day long, leaving the younger siblings to bask in unsupervised play on summer afternoons.
Some hundred pages later, brother and sister — now 11 and 14 — are back at the site of their former mischief to make their mark once again, but there is something forced in this reenactment of a childhood scene. It’s not just that the siblings’ notion of permanence is troubled; the backdrop itself has been obliterated and painstakingly rebuilt. After they lost all but the structure of their old Craftsman house in a fire, the two lived apart for a time: Melissa with their family in a number of temporary homes around Oakland, and Junior with an aunt and uncle in North Carolina, where their parents sent him to finish middle school. They had hoped that the Southern way of life would have a calming influence on their son, whose wild spirit was becoming harder to contain as he fought to defend himself against a pack of middle school bullies. Instead, he is even more out of place when he returns, and the bullies more intent on doing him harm. Out of self-preservation, Valentine writes, “he must build a fortress around himself made out of the roughest raw material he can find on the street, and no one is allowed in.” And yet, in moments like the one they share in front of their rebuilt family home — when he writes “N.S.O.” for North Side Oakland in the cement above his initials — she sees the boy who wants only to feel admired and in possession of himself again, to go back to believing in the inviolability of his young body.
In another book, this passage might read as a bittersweet evocation of adolescence and the tenuousness of the coupled concepts of home and identity. In Valentine’s memoir, it is more than bittersweet; I found it so difficult to read that I had to close the book for a moment and take a deep breath. This is because — as we learn in the introduction — Junior was murdered five years later, at 19, as he ran for his life on the side of a freeway in West Oakland. He was shot in the head by another young black man shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent the first year of his adult life. Before that, he’d been in and out of jail, juvenile detention centers, and a group home. “He was the school-to-prison pipeline in effect, black-on-black crime, a statistic, a flash on the nightly news,” but of course he was more than the sum of these descriptors, his story immeasurably more complicated. The Names of All the Flowers is at once a requiem for Junior and an account of Valentine’s coming to consciousness — and to writing — in the years that follow his murder, as she reckons with the mounting toll of black death in the United States.
This duality derives its narrative power largely from the book’s structure, which is divided into three parts: “Innocence: Oakland, CA & Selma, AL, 1990-1993,” “Protection: Oakland, CA, 1993-1999,” and “Disappearance: Oakland, CA, 1999-2016,” with an introduction set in more recent times. The entire book is written in the present tense, but while Valentine hews closely to the perspective of her younger self in the first section, a subtly retrospective tone weaves its way into the latter half, reflecting a growing awareness of the political forces — namely, Clinton-era austerity and the “tough on crime” legislation designed to incarcerate black and brown male bodies at a terrifying rate — that closed in on her brother in the last years of his life. “Innocence” reads almost like a self-contained novella, carrying its child narrator through the charged and vibrating landscapes of Oakland and Selma. Valentine describes a secret, in-between world that she and Junior inhabit apart from their older siblings and their baby sister, often playing for hours at Oakland’s botanical garden or in the forests of Selma, where Dad teaches them to identify plants and flowers by their scientific names. The loss of that world and the pain of their separation after the house fire foreshadows a series of future separations that lead to the final, irreversible one.
It is just before this initial separation, however, near the end of “Innocence,” that Valentine begins to worry any perception we might have of her narrator as the passive, more well-behaved younger sibling who simply bears the consequences of Junior’s problems. In their last conversation before he leaves for North Carolina, she confesses to her brother that she’s glad their house burned down: “Because all Daddy’s crap burned up. The house is finally clean.” It is our first glimpse of Melissa as a person capable of saying such a thing, even if she cannot yet articulate the emotions behind this curious sense of relief. Valentine builds on this tension throughout the rest of the book as she depicts the siblings’ often parallel struggles with their shared, contradictory desires: to make their parents proud, and to gain status among their peers by outwardly rejecting the idiosyncrasies of their mixed-race, working-class, hard-to-pin-down family; to know the love of that family, and to seek beauty, power, and acceptance beyond what it can give them. Junior builds his fortress by stealing (first bubblegum and pens, then wallets, then cars), skipping as much school as he can manage, and numbing himself with drugs, which he eventually starts to deal. Melissa, at first, shields herself by racking up honors and accolades at school, but as her older siblings leave for college and Junior draws further and further away, her own self-destructive impulses begin to surface. Her motivation dwindles and she, too, starts to cut classes, failing so slowly and quietly that no one notices until her report card is covered in Ds and Fs. “Don’t be like me. Please,” Junior implores her one day as they walk to lunch at the Wendy’s down the street from the high school he already no longer attends, and where she’s only just scraping by. At the stoplight, he takes off his jacket and hands it to Melissa, who feels the unexpected weight of the gun in his pocket. It is one of many moments in the book that are haunted by her sense of complicity in Junior’s demise, and by the knowledge — even after he’s gone — that little is keeping her from foundering along with him.
What gave Valentine the chance and the ability to survive those years, to graduate college and earn an MFA and to become the person who wrote this book, while Junior — despite having earned his GED in prison to return home with focus and the will to leave his mistakes behind — didn’t make it? Could she and her family and his teachers and counsellors have done more to help him? Readers who are looking for clear answers to these questions, or for a tidy diagnostic of the social ills that come to bear on the arc of Junior’s narrative, will have to put those expectations aside. Valentine has no interest in pointing fingers or delivering prescriptions, even as she takes a sharp critical stance against the policies that loomed over and undeniably contributed to the brevity of her brother’s life. When — most forcefully, in the book’s introduction — she evokes the interrelatedness of gun violence within black communities, police brutality, and America’s long and bitter history of systemic racism, she does so in the words of someone who has felt the weight of these things at a cellular level, and whose politics were shaped by living daily with an absence wrought by their consequences. By writing not only about what happened to Junior, but above all about the details of his life that had nothing to do with statistics — his gap-toothed grin, his love of collecting cassette tapes and vintage soda bottles, how he and Melissa could entertain themselves for whole afternoons catching guppies in the Japanese gardens near Lake Merritt — she allows them to imagine the singular pain of losing him, and the inseparability of that loss from her political awakening. If we share in her rage, we can also draw strength from the way she has used it to hone her voice and to write toward the possibility of healing; and therein lies the astonishing generosity of this book.
Such generosity may take root and grow, like the lush green weeds in the cotton fields outside of Selma, from the soil of grief at its most raw, but it can also be cultivated — if we are at all lucky — through reading. Valentine gestures toward this second potentiality in a reference to Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), a book she devours when it is assigned in the English class she’s quietly failing. In Butler’s dystopian novel set in a 2020s Los Angeles ravaged by global warming and economic strife, a 15-year-old suffers from a strange affliction known as “hyperempathy”; she feels others’ pain as if it were her own. I happened to have read Parable earlier this year, and was reminded of a passage in which the young woman describes a recurring dream of teaching herself to fly:
I let go of whatever I’m grasping, whatever has kept me from rising or falling so far. And I lean into the air, straining upward, not moving upward, but not quite falling down either. Then I do begin to move, as though to slide on the air drifting a few feet above the floor, caught between terror and joy.
Moments later, the walls begin to burn and she flies through the flames, grasping at handfuls of air. Butler is writing about transcendence — of fear, of pain, of oppression — as something learned in the body, through practice and false starts. Something that is not achieved but experienced, gone through, much like love. Valentine, too, grasps for whatever she can hold on to while Junior is in prison and as she grieves his death. There are periods of self-harm, when her days become a blur of liquor and weed and razor blades; there are nights spent in her room, writing letters to him that she never sends, and poetry she’s too nervous to read at the Berkeley High open mics she attends. There is the moment when she understands that the state sees her brother not as a kid who needs help but as a monster to be feared, and that, like Butler’s heroine, she now has a superpower she’d never asked for: “My special ability to see humans in monsters, my belief in monsters, my love for monsters, and now the certainty that aligning with monsters makes me on the losing side. It’s mine now and all of ours — this knowing that there is a design for our destruction.”
And there is the learning to wield that power, the straining upward and the letting go, the bracing herself for the flames. Of her writing process, Valentine said in a recent interview: “I got to experience my brother again, imagine him laughing, see him as child full of potential, remember his life and not just his death.” When, days after Junior’s funeral, she and her siblings went to the freeway exit where he was shot and covered the cement wall in messages and drawings of flowers, Valentine wrote, “Come back, come back, come back.” The wall was quickly painted over. But she never stopped writing, and every sentence of this book is infused with that same urgency and longing. It is hers now, and all of ours, to hold.
Katie Shireen Assef is a writer, literary translator, and sometime bookseller living between Los Angeles and Marseille, France. Her translation of French writer Valérie Mréjen’s novel Black Forest was published by Deep Vellum in 2019.
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