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Review: ‘Acne,’ by Laura Chinn; ‘Walking Gentry Home,’ by Alora Young; ‘Fruit Punch,’ by Kendra Allen

Named for the TV writer Laura Chinn’s lifelong nemesis, ACNE: A Memoir (306 pp., Hachette, $29) uses the author’s skin as a marker of time, a memorable indicator of who and where she was at various stages in her life. Of finding her first whitehead de ella at 10, she writes, That first little white bastard that introduced me to the concept of hating myself was foreshadowing intense suffering and inevitable growth and transformation, but all I could do was stare at it in the mirror, like a goddamn moron.”

Chinn grew up in anorganic, free-range, humanely sourced kind of family” in the Los Angeles suburbs, where she and her older brother were home-schooled. Her white mother and Black father were practicing Scientologists. Not long after that first zit appears, Chinn’s mother moves her and her de ella’s brother to Clearwater, Fla., where her father de ella will supposedly join them after not too long. Instead of the “bigger, better house” and the sand castles and dolphins her mother has promised, their new home de ella turns out to be condemned, un-air-conditioned, kitchenless, and covered in the hair of the previous tenant’s German shepherds . Chinn recalls being greeted by a possum that had lived and died inside of that doghouse.” Her free-spirited father of her never moves to Florida, and her parents of her are soon divorced.

Chinn’s adolescence is riddled with the casual trauma of neglect. Her de ella “untraditional” mother de ella “did n’t believe in silly concepts like boundaries or protecting a child from sensitive information,” and when Chinn asks for a carton of Marlboro Lights for her 12th birthday de ella, her mother de ella obliges. At 16, Chinn’s popular, athletic brother develops a cancerous brain tumor that leaves him permanently blind and plagues him for the rest of his life. Their mother de ella relocates back to LA for his hospital treatments, leaving 13-year-old Chinn to raise herself alone in Florida. Coming home to this new reality, she writes, “I unlocked the door and stepped into the emptiness.”

Chinn imbues her painful experiences—of grief, loneliness, self-loathing, racism and substance abuse—with grace, compassion and whole-belly laughter. In figuring it out as she goes, the only thing she seems to know for sure is that she will try and fail over and over, but that the trying is the point.

In her debut book, WALKING GENTRY HOME: A Memoir of My Foremothers in Verse (212 pp., Hogarth, paper, $18), Alora Young, the 2021 youth poet laureate of the Southern United States, writes from the shared perspective of her ancestors in west Tennessee. “From unrecorded history to the 1700s up to my life in the present day,” she takes the reader on a matrilineal journey dating even further back than the earliest family member she can name, “my several-greats-grandmother Collie, the child of an enslaved woman and her enslaver in the days when Tennessee was still primarily wilderness.” Collie’s foremothers would never be known to those who came into the world carrying the same blood. Their children’s children’s children would be brought up in the dying town of Halls, Tenn., flocked on all sides by seas of cotton,” a place where “the only things that changed / were your body and the seasons.”

Separated into six parts, the more than 120 poems follow a loose chronology. From her great-grandmother Gentry’s forced marriage at 14 to the impossible standards to which Black girls are held today (“My people go to Harvard / you scream of affirmative action”), Young laments the limited options available to her bloodline throughout their long existence on North American soil. “My mom tells me remembering lineage and breaking generational curses is the most important thing you can do in your lifetime,” she writes in “I’m Still Walking.” She tells me generational curses are American curses.” Through verse, Young feels called to reclaim ownership of her own legacy of her, and her future. If, as the spiritualist Ram Dass said, “we’re all just walking each other home,” then Young has taken her ancestors’ hands de ella, the ones who lived and died without the right to their full humanity, and walks them as far as she can down their own paths.

As is perhaps expected in a work of hybrid genre, some of these entries read more like incomplete essays than finished poems. But as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, Young has the time to hone her craft from her, and her direction from her. Written in a distinct and ambitious voice, this slightly scattered debut is nonetheless proof of her budding capabilities, and hopefully of her commitment to sharing more true stories from the American South.

“Before you read this book,” Kendra Allen warns at the start of FRUIT PUNCH: A Memoir (143 pp., Ecco, $26.99), “know that you don’t gotta finish it.” Writing herself from early childhood into early adulthood, the Dallas native covers happy memories, yes, but also disturbing ones: of her parents’ tumultuous relationship (first her mother takes her on a high-speed car chase away from her father, and then Allen’s in the bed with them as they make up); of her mother’s threats from her (“not doing what you told — not listening — can get you hurt or get you hit”); of touching herself in dark rooms as a teenager, to keep from crying.

There are no tropes or platitudes here; Allen exhibits the same assertiveness and transparency that she showed in her previous books of hers, “The Collection Plate: Poems” and “When You Learn the Alphabet,” which won the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. In “Fruit Punch,” her vulnerability is particularly palpable. As a child, Allen is both rebellious and responsible, making sure she and her mother have enough change to wash and dry all their clothes in deeply nostalgic laundromat scenes, but also tearing holes in the stockings she hates wearing to her great-great-uncle’s Southern Baptist church.

Inhabiting her younger mind, Allen writes as a witness to the myriad ways in which the adults responsible for her well-being failed her. When an older boy in her neighborhood exposes himself to her before she’s even old enough for grade school, she thinks: “We all know what wrong is, and we all know not to talk about wrong things to no adult no matter how much they assure us they the open books they parents weren’t for them.”

Allen homes in on the right of a child to mistrust the whole world as she hurts toward adulthood. “I’m exhausted that I gotta be everybody’s parent,” Allen writes, “and I’m too scared to cry in the light.” Complete with ’90s-baby cultural references to Morgan Freeman and Mary J. Blige, the book is a reading experience all its own, holding the reader at an emotional distance, even as it stings. Its fire may be unrelenting, but readers should push themselves to take the heat.

Ashley C. Ford is the author of “Somebody’s Daughter.”

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