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Daring to bare her indignity

Karen E. Quinones Miller' autobiographical novel lays out her life's troubles and triumphs.

By Karen E. Quinones Miller

Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing.

288 pp. $15 paperback

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Reviewed by Bobbi Booker

All writers are advised that the best story to tell is the one they know best.

NAACP Image Award literature nominee Karen E. Quinones Miller, who will appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday night, has mined the depths of her life to tell, yet again, another aspect of her harrowing story, as she has done from her first book - the self-published-to-traditionally-published Satin Doll (2001) - and on through a series of follow-up bestsellers. Miller's latest, An Angry-Ass Black Woman, is presented as an autobiographical novel.

The author, a former Inquirer staff writer who has penned only one nonfiction book (a biography of Harlem gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson), advises readers unfamiliar with the notion of the genre she's presenting to go back to Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) as a prime example.

While Brown and Miller do share the role of coming-of-age authors whose vivid narrations depict violence and poverty in Harlem, their equally ribald descriptions of urban life veer off on decidedly different courses.

Brown's classic tale has been hailed (and nearly equally reviled) for its engaging, creative, and courageous realism, while Miller's deconstruction of her life, along with her use of profanity, is often off-putting. The author addresses the matter immediately on the first page, explaining that she has earned the right to curse because she has been in crisis: "Every punch I've taken, every security guard who followed me in a store, every boss who's treated me like I was a slave, every caseworker who looked at me like I was s- , every man who was raping me while I thought he was making love to me, every f- second I've lived in a racist-ass country that keeps telling me racism is all in my mind ... all this s- has made me An Angry-Ass Black Woman."

To move forward with this review, one must look back, just as the author has done in revisiting her decidedly unconventional life. Miller and her twin sister were born in 1958 in Spanish Harlem and, except for a brief period when her family lived in the Bronx, shared a home along 117th Street with her single mother and two brothers.

An Angry-Ass Black Woman is presented through a series of flashbacks that occur as Miller lies in a comatose state recovering from brain surgery. Like the scores of families surrounding them, the Quinoneses' parents had a tumultuous relationship, which had an impact on their children. Miller has often shared her hardscrabble family existence with readers. But among shocking recollections of violent crime, scamming, drinking and drugging, she also tells of the strong bonds she formed with neighborhood peers who were the nucleus of her street survival team.

Utilizing her childhood family nickname, "Ke-Ke," Miller details the path to her definition and embrace of the "angry-ass Black woman" persona, from impoverished childhood to challenging adolescence, topped off with an equally troubling adulthood.

This trip in the way-back machine to 1960s Harlem comes through the staggered memories of an author recovering from a life-or-death struggle on the other side of brain tumor surgery - the junior high school dropout who is raped as a teen, joins the Navy to escape, marries a man who becomes abusive, and finds herself in Mississippi debating racist notions such as whether alligators prefer eating blacks over whites.

Throughout the novel, Miller is supremely clear about the effects that institutional racism has had on her life. Yet, through it all, she maintains her determination not to become a victim (and her fear is valid, as two of her siblings are lost to the streets). She divorces, moves back North with her infant daughter, graduates cum laude from Temple University, and lands a job at The Inquirer. All the while, Miller is battling demons of insecurity, and fighting the feeling that she doesn't deserve the new life she has carved out for herself.

The loose ends of Miller's existence have formed the basis of nearly all of the nine books she has written, which creates another issue: After revisiting the same territory over and over, how do you visit it again without boring the reader? Whether this disjointed story bears repeating is open for debate. However, the insight that the reader gleans into the foundation of this book's title is priceless.

"My story continues because my life continues," Miller concludes as she finally finds the fortitude to kiss her anger goodbye.