When You Learn the Alphabet
2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction
“Kendra Allen’s When You Learn the Alphabet is a roaring meditation on what black daughters in our nation do with what and how they’ve been taught. The book brilliantly animates the formal and informal education processes of becoming grown in America. Allen somehow manages to make explorations of colorism, language, trauma, war, and love sit comfortably next to one another. Allen’s book is an ambitious, dexterous collection that really obliterates convenient understandings of the sentimental in favor of dynamic, fleshy layers of soulful sincerity. It is a remarkable artistic achievement.”—Kiese Laymon, judge, Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, author, Heavy: An American Memoir
“Allen writes of the layers of her experience and the larger African-American experience, from surface appearances ("they do not see caramel, yella bones, creole, good hair, bad hair….They don't see chocolate, bleaching creams, sunscreens, brown skin, light skin, they just see African") to family dynamics to the power of words. A standout piece on the last matter is her essay "How to Workshop N-Words," which should be required reading for writing instructors everywhere. . . . The author turns the lens on herself when examining the fraught place of gayness in the African-American community, confessing to comfortable accession to "straight privilege" and challenging those who "have used God as a rationalization for their made up minds all their lives." A promising debut from a writer with much to say.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Kendra Allen will not, as she writes, make anyone feel good at her own expense. Nor will she let herself be comforted at the expense of others. Instead, she brilliantly writes her tender origins into history, creating for future readers a complex sense of self-recognition missing from her own past.”—Hali Felt, University of Alabama
“Every generation has its seer, a writer of radical, fierce talent who tells it true, who writes the being and identity like a punch in the gut. Kendra Allen is this generation’s sharpshooter. To think: this is her first book. We are witnessing the birth of this astonishing star.”—Jenny Boully, author, Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life
Kendra Allen’s first collection of essays—at its core—is a bunch of mad stories about things she never learned to let go of. Unifying personal narrative and cultural commentary, this collection grapples with the lessons that have been stored between parent and daughter. These parental relationships expose the conditioning that subconsciously informed her ideas on social issues such as colorism, feminism, war-induced PTSD, homophobia, marriage, and “the n-word,” among other things.
These dynamics strive for some semblance of accountability, and the essays within this collection are used as displays of deep unlearning and restoring—balancing trauma and humor, poetics and reality, forgiveness and resentment.
When You Learn the Alphabet allots space for large moments of tenderness and empathy for all black bodies—but especially all black woman bodies—space for the underrepresented humanity and uncared for pain of black girls, and space to have the opportunity to be listened to in order to evolve past it.