If I were still teaching, I would love to assign Disgruntled, which is high praise coming from me. It is the best kind of coming-of-age story, an enticing blend of the specific and the universal, so that I often saw myself in the main character, Kenya, who we follow from first grade through twelfth. I saw myself, but I also entered a different world, that of a young black girl in Pennsylvania, whose life, happy and sad alike, is revealed by Asali Solomon in a you-are-there mode that gives us not only the externals of Kenya’s neighborhoods, but also the internals of Kenya’s thoughts and emotions. Kenya is a finely-drawn, believable character, a strong center to a novel that covers a decent amount of time.
While Kenya is the core of the story, Solomon also offers an extended family of characters in support that are just as intriguing. Kenya’s mother and father, and then her step-father, and later a communal family with her father, two women, and three kids, all are distinct personalities. And each living situation that presents itself to Kenya offers different challenges, some of which are easier for her than others.
Kenya is herself different from other kids (but then, what heroine of a coming-of-age novel is ever ordinary?). What we learn over time is that, while she may be invested in her difference, that difference is compounded by her outside world. When she is young in West Philly, she isn’t quite like the other kids ... her family celebrates Kwanzaa, not Christmas, as an example. When she transfers to a mostly-white private school, the differences are more obvious (and class is also more clearly a divider), and she is gradually understanding that some of her feelings of difference come from the way the people around her make assumptions about who she is on the outside. Perhaps most dramatically, when she moves in with her father on his communal farm, she experiences a life that is in many ways farther from her earlier upbringing than was the private school.
When Kenya returns to her mother at the end of the novel, we know how far she has come, and there is a hopefulness that even as she returns to her past, she has learned enough from her experiences to create a new life down the road. She “comes of age” just in time to begin again.
Solomon’s writing flows effortlessly. Each character has their own manner of speaking ... you never get that feeling where each character is just another mouthpiece for the author. Kenya feels auto-biographical, but Disgruntled is not a memoir. Solomon uses the raw materials of her life to create a world all its own.