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I'm Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff

I'm Down: A Memoir

by Mishna Wolff

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3683645,911 (3.71)16
Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. "He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains and a Kangol--telling jokes like Redd Fox, and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn't tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried," writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughterdown. Unfortunately, Mishna didn't quite fit in with the neighborhood kids: she couldn't dance, she couldn't sing, she couldn't double Dutch and she was the worst player on her all-black basketball team. She was shy, uncool, and painfully white. And yet when she was suddenly sent to a rich white school, she found she was too "black" to fit in with her white classmates. I'm Down is a hip, hysterical and at the same time beautiful memoir that will have you howling with laughter, recommending it to friends and questioning what it means to be black and white in America.… (more)
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    Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen (amyblue)
    amyblue: Both books are funny and thoughtful memoirs of somewhat unusual childhoods.

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When a white child grows up in a white family with a father who thinks he’s black, acts like he’s black and expects his wife and 2 very young daughters to be just as black as the neighborhood they are growing up in, it can be a bit unnerving. Sure, he fits in, having grown up there and already making his mark, but in the few years away, when the children are born, there is a separation that Mishna, at just 6, can’t quite bring together.

When her parents divorce shortly after, she and her younger sister stay with their father while their mother deals with life as it is. Forced to attend a summer “day camp” while their dad works, Mishna finally finds the voice to “cap” back at the other kids who ridiculed her as soon as she walked through the door. With new found chutzpah, she attains the friendships she desired as well as the confidence to gain a few more.

Finally making her way in school, she is again upheaved when she is sent to a different school for smarter kids. Rich kids. Still trying to please her father, who seems to prefer her dumb & cute, she is tasked with tending to her younger sister, her homework, the extra curriculum he signs her up for, and to adore his new girlfriends, as long as they are.

Wanting a better future, she decides, at 12 years of age, that scholarships are her ticket to the best college, but how? Knowing her father got in via football, she sets her goal for bulking up to play. In the meantime, she joins a swim team and soon excels at the breaststroke. So much so, she is asked to join a real team, but she wants the glory of football, because, after all, “It’s not like you sit down and watch Monday night swimming.”

Home life escalates into animosity over Mishna’s desire to better herself and the needs involved with such. Her father has remarried, his new wife supports them all with the addiction of her own two children and feels Mishna should be contributing more, monetarily and domestically. Arguments erupt, Mishna continues to subjugate herself, hoping to appease, and continues to fail. Realizing she can never be all, she leaves to live with her mother, finding a new peace and outlook on life. Wisdom enters with the realization that even rich kids have messed up lives and she needs to own her own, center herself, to attain any goals she holds.

If you loved The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, you will equality enjoy this. Filled with much the same parents, sibling adoration, smack-yourself-in-the-head situations and financial deprivation, it is inspiring to see her win in the end. ( )
  CherylGrimm | Dec 4, 2018 |
Mishna was a white girl raised in a poor black neighbourhood in Seattle. Her father wanted to think he was black, so that’s the neighbourhood he chose to raise his two daughters. Mishna, in particular, had a hard time fitting in when she was young. Once she finally started making friends in the neighbourhood, though she still lived there, she had tested high on some academic tests, so she had to switch to a school in a rich neighbourhood with smart rich kids, and once again, she didn’t know how to fit in there.

I really liked this book. She wrote it, mostly with a humourous slant, but it was sad to see that her father did not treat her well. His girlfriends varied on how they treated Mishna. She did learn later on that even some of the rich kids, despite their money, had problems, as well. She was born not long after me, so I certainly identified with much of the 80s culture, in general, which is always fun. It was a quick read. ( )
  LibraryCin | Sep 12, 2018 |
Mishna Wolff's I'm Down purports to be both a ragingly funny family-dysfunction memoir à la Sedaris or Burroughs, and a perceptive take on racial identity. It's neither, but that shouldn't stop Wolff, who was raised by a white single father in the black working-class town of Rainier Valley, Washington, from making hay with this slight but basically sweet-tempered memoir.

Wolff's book has the contours of the classic coming-of-age tale, wherein the awkward and put-upon duckling triumphs over a series of endearing mishaps and eventually turns into a swan (the marketing copy identifies Wolff, ominously, as a "humorist and former model"). In Mishna Wolff's case, a background of legitimately harrowing but otherwise unremarkable poverty was made distinctive by her father's insistent adoption of all the hallmarks of urban African-American culture, including the flamboyant clothes, the jewelry, the aggressively ungrammatical argot and the emphasis on toughness and contempt for authority. The result, according to Wolff, was a comical decade-long reverse-passing drama and a childhood marked by substantial identity confusion.

Wolff mines this material for humor, but there's something weird and unintentionally telling going on here. The author treats her father's obsession as source material for rueful isn't-this-crazy comedy, but a man repeatedly putting his two young daughters in considerable danger to prove his "blackness" is, in fact, a sad and desperate spectacle. Other people understand this: John Belushi's famous imitation of Joe Cocker got its sting from the pathos inherent in the lengths white men will go to in order to demonstrate that they have "soul." Wolff's depiction of her father is startlingly tone-deaf, with what seems intended as a portrayal of harmless eccentricity often verging on the monstrous. Most readers, however jaded, don't think child abuse is funny.

The element of I'm Down that, almost incidentally, carries real force is not the racial appropriation but rather the depiction of relentless poverty. Wolff mentions off-handedly that she and her sister often lived for weeks on tapioca and watery corn bread; there's a poignant scene where the teenage author, who has unwittingly high-achieved herself into attendance at a posh private school, forces herself to share her classmates' disdain for the school lunches that she, half-starving, secretly craves. Wolff describes how she unapologetically latched onto her rich classmates in order to take advantage of their ski trips and European vacations and palatial beachfront homes full of sleek electronics and fully stocked kitchens, only to discard the same girls with contempt once they had served her purposes. A more reflective writer would surely see how sad this is, but Wolff races ahead to the next set piece, like the comic pro she is.

I'm Down is in many ways a catalogue of misplaced emphases and unintended literary effects (the prose, for one thing, is flat and clumsy, and the humor feels strained in the way that stand-up routines transferred to the page usually do), but one doesn't feel quite right blaming Mishna Wolff for this, exactly. One of the many irritating things about memoir as a genre is the way it makes special claims for itself, the way it seems to be criticism-proof. With a novel, a dyspeptic critic, especially one not unnerved by the daunting middle-class minefields of race and parenthood, can simply dismiss the lot as so much ill-conceived garbage. Since a memoir's power is ostensibly grounded in its truthfulness, however, it often feels that the only legitimate objection is to say, "this person's life is not interesting." The alternative, at least in this case, is only slightly less harsh: to say "you haven't done a good job extracting meaning from your life," or, "you don't understand the meaning of your own life." On Mishna Wolff's block, them's fighting words. I hope she doesn't "cap" me. —From The L Magazine, June 24, 2009 ( )
  MikeLindgren51 | Aug 7, 2018 |
I actually enjoyed reading this book from beginning to end. The author, Mishna Wolff, bravely writes with humor about such sensitive topics as race, class, and parenting. The main focus of the book is the story of her father identifying with black culture so much that he decided to act like a "black man" and, among other things, to raise Mishna and her younger sister in a predominately black, low-income neighborhood in Seattle. Mr. Wolff (who, like Mishna and her younger sister, is white) listened to black music, decorated his home blackishly, socialized with black men in his neighborhood, and dated black women. He even spoke in a blackish dialect, as is clear from Mishna's renderings of her father's speech. Apparently, Mr. Wolff's raising Mishna and her younger sister in this way made such a distinctive impression on her that she felt compelled enough to share her coming-of-age story in this memoir, comically titled I'm Down and featuring an even more ribald picture of Mishna with an exaggerated afro on the cover.

There were several moments while reading when I literally laughed out loud. For example, desperate as a child to fit in with her black, low-income peers, Mishna teaches herself how to play "The Dozens". Eager to try her newfound skill on her unsuspecting mother, who'd recently gotten interested in Buddhism, Mishna cracks on her mother, "You're so dumb, you thought Buddhism was about booty." I found it comically charming when the adolescent Mishna discovered that playing The Dozens with anyone other than the black peers in her neighborhood (for example, her white mother and father, or the white students at the elite private school she attended) wasn't received well.

And there are many other laugh-out-loud moments. Even though the humor waned considerably during the last fourth of the book, it was still a compelling read as Mishna recalls, from a child's perspective, what it was like living with a father whom she dearly loved, but whose love for her wasn't always shown in ways easily comprehensible to a child. ( )
  Goodlorde | Jan 27, 2018 |
2.5 ( )
  Dawnssj | Jan 26, 2018 |
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