Some books make great elevator pitches. “Ordinary Notes,” the new book by Christina Sharpe, has this: what if you composed a nonfiction book from a few hundred individually numbered notes, some as short as a line, others several pages long? Some notes are comments or quotations. Others tell a fully realized anecdote. Some strings of notes come together as a running narrative. Some notes can even act as pieces of academic criticism.
“Ordinary Notes” finds formal revolution in simplicity. It is at once clever, as using notes to create longform nonfiction is fresh in the same way that composing a novel of shorts once felt, while also rooted in writing’s epistolary traditions. It’s a form that allows Sharpe to move between modes seamlessly. One note might be a personal remembrance of a conversation with her mother and be followed by a quote-laden analysis of the structural biases in Western culture. Sometimes Sharpe will pull memoir to make an academically minded point; other times criticism will be infused in personal memoir. In the juxtaposition of these notes, of the narrative and poetic and the academic, Sharpe greatly uses this novel form to effective ends.
One effective end is Sharpe’s observations of the Black experience. It is here that I want to be receptive to Sharpe, who spent a note skewering “A certain mode of reading connected to a tradition of colonial practices in which every book by any Black writer appears as sociology” and is thus able to be ignored. But Sharpe, a chair of Black Studies, clearly provides sociopolitical commentary, both in her critical and her narrative notes. She’s explicit and unsparing about her opposition to colonialist power structures. She will not forgive the tormenting classmates who send her long-overdue apologies or the graduate professors who removed the one Black author from the syllabus. She will not absolve the woman who forced her white guilt from a slave memorial onto the first Black person she saw. She will not allow “good white liberals” to feign innocence for their status quo-supporting handwringing.
But to reduce “Ordinary Notes”’ meaning to Sharpe’s opposition to white supremacy is to ignore an equally explicit objective: to use her observations to highlight Black beauty. It is largely in her personal vignettes that Sharpe succeeds in this, especially when highlighting the love and grief of her relationship with her mother, a mother who fostered Sharpe’s love for Black literature through constant book exchanges. Deserving particular praise is a section where, over the course of many notes, Sharpe untangles meaning from an old photograph featuring the grandmother she never met and her mother as a child. In tracing the context of this photo, as she struggles to figure out exactly what arrests her about it, she manages to transfer that indescribable feeling to us, putting us in the position of grappling with that still moment long passed.
The trick with “Ordinary Notes” is that it is not just beautiful or a testament to Black resistance. It is not just personal or academic. It is not even just an inventive form, but as a result of that form, Sharpe lets “Ordinary Notes” be all of these things at once, and yet somehow more than the sum of its already high-quality parts.
By Christina Sharpe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 392 pages, $35