It’s such a shame that I’m just now writing about these memoirs, considering that both have been sitting in many ‘NEED TO READ’ notes and documents on my iPhone and computer for a combined total of two years. What’s even more absurd is that after I ordered both books, I left them on my bookshelf for weeks. Perhaps I was waiting for the perfect moment in which I could fully absorb (and completely devour) them, and a snowy day a few weekends ago was it!
I had already started Bird of Paradise a few days before, but I finished the bulk of it and the entirety of How to Die in Paris in one day. There was something so enchanting about spending the day fully engaged with the meat of two peoples’ life stories. I laughed and cried and shouted and gasped and went mute at so many moments while reading these memoirs and I felt invigorated after the experience. Through the process of reading about Raquel Cepeda and Naturi Thomas’ lives in their own words, I almost felt challenged to assess my own life with different eyes.
The messages in these books will resonate deeply with any reader and I highly recommend that you pick them up and dive into their worlds as soon as possible.
Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina by Raquel Cepda
The moment I read the very last word (not including the index) in Raquel Cepeda’s memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, I tweeted that I didn’t expect it to be as mystical as it was. (In my initial tweet, which I amended, I wrote “magical,” which, on second thought truly applies, as well.) I knew her story would be compelling: Cepeda came from a rough childhood and refashioned her life through hip hop and the written word, going on to become an accomplished journalist and documentary filmmaker. Cepeda’s story is made even richer by the fact that she presents these life events through the prism of her journey of self-discovery – the reader learns, alongside the author, what she is made of quite literally.
The mysticism that pervades her life makes the memoir even more thrilling to read. Throughout the book, Cepeda includes dreams and real-life events that illustrate her inherited gift of “sight” and her ability to “transmit spirits” like those of her spiritual guide una india and her ancestor la Africana: In one striking moment in the book, Cepeda even discusses the possible identity of la Africana, who appears in many of her dreams, based on the findings from her DNA test.
With this book, Cepeda manages to make the composite of her past, present, family history and her search for her genetic makeup a very engaging read that may raise questions for some about the meaning of destiny and the significance of even the most mundane of one’s life experiences. I was particularly moved by the feeling the book left me with: the human race is really all one gigantic family – dysfunctional, but family, nonetheless. Now I’m feeling like I may need to dig up some of the roots of my own family tree.
How to Die in Paris by Naturi Thomas
I have a confession. When I first saw this book on a website’s suggested reading list, I immediately assumed it was going to be some romantic tale about the City of Light. I have no idea why. Maybe it was simply seeing the word “Paris” in the title. More than a year later, I’m sitting in my bed reading it and feeling stunned by how literal the title is. In How to Die in Paris, Naturi Thomas feels as if her life is in shambles so she runs off to Europe to escape, only to be met with homelessness and an unrelenting desire to end her life.
In her memoir’s acknowledgements section Thomas thanks her teacher/mentor/friend for encouraging her to write about her childhood, a very essential component in the book. The dark details of Thomas’ childhood give us some insight into the underlying hows and whys that lead to her dire circumstances in Paris. The novel almost reads like one long therapy session that Thomas allows us to sit in on while she connects the dots of her life. Her writing is personal and sentient. We experience her troubled upbringing that leads to a messy adulthood along with her. Every desperate choice and every small victory is ours as much as it’s hers.
I forgot for a moment that I was in my comfy bed and I felt that same cold tile underneath me that Thomas was sitting on in the library bathroom stall as she savored the unsubstantial mousse that would be her one meal for the day. And I felt the panic when she lost shelter after her final male savior decided that her sex wasn’t worth the hassle of keeping her around.
And that revelation at the end???!! It will leave readers gasping for breath. Utterly shocking and heartbreaking. I had to wipe tears from my eyes, which is always the perfect way to finish a book in my opinion.