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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lady of Spain

Discovering gazpacho

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  Many young girls dream of being the most popular, adored girl in school. But the truth is, only a tiny fraction of them end up as the cool and popular ones, while the rest of us are left to find a different way in the social ranks, a way to define who we truly are inside.

  In the deliciously twisted memoir Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love and Spain (Atria), Lori L. Tharps, a native Milwaukeean now living in Philadelphia, takes readers down the winding roads of her journey of love and self-discovery across the Iberian Peninsula and back again.

  Tharps begins the story by dropping the reader immediately into her world: "Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 1980. Third grade. Right before dismissal." Raised in a middle-class family from the suburbs, Tharps is bused to a private school with upper-middle-class and upper-class students. She quickly learns to adapt to her surroundings, where she is one of the few black kids in her private school, by loving the music of her peers, speaking like a Valley girl and "blending in" so as not to remind her friends that she is different.

  But from the start, it is clear that she does not always feel or see herself like everyone else. She faces fear and anxiety from believing that her only option of participating in International Day at school is dressing as a slave (so she doesn't participate), or from trying to blend in to the point where her friends and their families use the "n-word" quite comfortably in front of her.

  "As the boy landed on top of his friends, he yelled at the top of his lungs, 'Nigger pile-on!' Then there was a raucous laughter,” she writes. “I was horrified. Mortified. Embarrassed. HURT… 'They're not talking about you. It's just a game,' he said, looking not the least bit embarrassed or worried about my feelings."

  For better or worse, we are judged by our race—as though it’s a precursor of how we are expected to act. Tharps experiences the twisted rites of passage into "mainstream" culture by having to turn the other cheek so that her lonely, streaming tear does not show her pain, along with the knotted lessons of rejection from people who look like her (she confides that many blacks shunned her because she “talked white”).

  The story is peppered with humor, but this sympathetic character dishes out her share of pretentious and ignorant comments as well. Initially, I was put off by her yearning to wash away the color of her skin and escape to some far-off foreign land. “Where is her pride? Why don't her parents teach her about the richness of her heritage?” I wondered as I flipped through the pages, half annoyed, but unable to turn away from her lively adventures of studying abroad or her intriguing, relatable trips of self-doubt.

  The story progresses without missing a beat as Tharps goes through growing pains and finds, loses and finds love again. When she travels outside the country, she discovers her destiny. As the title implies, the story romances readers with the heartache and breathtaking moments of life as two completely different cultures intertwine. Partially a journal of the struggles to be comfortable and confident in her own skin, the book describes Tharps’ understanding of a multicultural lifestyle, her international travels and how she ultimately discovers herself and her love enEspaol.

  Tharps writes with a quirky, witty voice that is authentic, honest and comical, and her colloquial writing style makes for a fast and fun read. She manages to keep the reader engaged as she untangles the kinks of hairy experiences dealing with life, love and Spain.

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