Cupcake and Queen (book notes)

17 Jan

I recently read two non-fiction books, one right after the other, something I don’t often do. One was a memoir and the other a biography of sorts. I was struck by the similarity of the stories–poor girl goes through hardship, finds a way out, struggles, and eventually makes good (or is on her way to do so). On the other hand, the stories were also very different: One takes place in California, the other in Uganda. One involves abandonment, heartbreak, drugs, and a broken foster care system. The other showcases the challenges of abject poverty, and the possibilities of international philanthropy and local involvement. On balance, these books might appeal to very different audiences. My observations of similarities may result from having read the books back to back and not from any real sameness. Who knows? In either case, both are worthwhile, though troubling reads.

A Piece of Cake: A Memoir by Cupcake Brown (Crown Publishers, 2006).

Cover of "A Piece of Cake: A Memoir"

Cover of A Piece of Cake: A Memoir

This book grabbed me in the first pages. Cupcake Brown is a year older than I am. She grew up on the streets of Los Angeles and San Diego. I grew up in the middle class comfort of Livingston, NJ. During my privileged childhood, her experiences were for me the stuff of ABC After School Specials.

Cupcake Brown (her real name, deriving from her mother’s craving for cupcakes during pregnancy) recounts waking up in January 1976 to find her mother dead. Cupcake was twelve. The death of her mother sets off a cycle of unbelievable events, including the discovery that her daddy was not her biological father. The latter comes forward to claim her and her brother in order to get the Social Security benefits. He immediately deposits them with a foster mother who is abusive, negligent, and reprehensible.

In many ways, the story is predictable–we’ve seen it in novels and films for years–the system fails Cupcake horribly. She suffers sexual and physical abuse and starvation in her foster home. She loses touch with the man she knows as her daddy. She runs away and spirals into a life of prostitution, gang involvement, crime, and drug abuse. You know how the story ends. You must. She’s written a book, so things must have turned around for her. But how?

Sheer tenacity, I think, coupled with a memory of the parental love she enjoyed for twelve years. She ran away from her foster home so many times that the foster mother eventually took her time calling the authorities. She found that she could live on the streets using her one resource, her body. So she did. When her gang-banging got her shot and she’s told she’ll never walk again, she determined to leave the gang life and start over. Through all of her false starts, Cupcake demonstrates a stubborn will to survive. Despite the abuse, she seems to never lose her inner strength and self-confidence. It isn’t until a drug-abusing boyfriend challenges her to learn to talk “like whites” and get a job to finance her drug habit that she realizes she is determined, gifted, and worth more than the life she’s been leading.

I was at once compelled and perplexed by this book. Cupcake details a life spent in the haze of alcohol and drugs.  And yet, she can recall exactly what she drank on particular occasions and exactly what inappropriate outfit she wore (while drunk) to a job interview.  These details seem implausible if the story is true. Just as I was about to toss the book because this seemed so unreal, Cupcake decides to clean up her act. While the 12-step program may seem familiar, Brown’s description of her relationship with her sponsor and other recovering addicts paints a powerful picture of how personal relationships fuel the support system. I felt that I was reaping the benefits of the good counsel and tough love she received.

Today, Cupcake Brown is a successful attorney and New York Times-bestselling author. Without denying the power of her story and prose, I believe that much of her success has to do with our human compulsion to read stories of people whose lives make ours look easy. Or, to watch a train crash. This is the story of which television movies are made, writ large and real and with a happy ending.

The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers (Scribner, 2012). KatweTim Crother’s book tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a girl who lives in abject poverty in Katwe, the poorest slum in Kampala, Uganda.  She is also the reigning Ugandan chess champion. Crother’s traces Mutesi’s family history through two generations, outlining how the cycle of poverty is nearly unbreakable in Kampala.  Her chess mentor is not a well-meaning foreigner, but another child of Uganda, Robert Katende, whose own story of survival through Uganda’s civil war makes up a good chapter of this book (and probably merits its own book).

Katende, like Cupcake Brown, is determined to leave his impoverished past behind. He eventually becomes an employee of Sports Outreach, originally assigned to help slum children through soccer-based missionary work. It is an arduous task. Katende realizes that soccer will only take them so far, but that the skills they might acquire through chess would be important life-skills. Mutesi follows her brother to chess club one day and is discovered to have raw talent.

Katende coaches Mutesi to “play like a girl.” He notices her aggressive, survivalist approach to knocking other player’s pieces of quickly and teaches her slow down, use her wits, and strategize. Working with Sports Outreach and the Ugandan Chess Association, he gets his hardscrabble team to a tournament. They surprise everyone by besting the well-educated upper class children. Mutesi, particularly, wins nearly every match she plays, learning quickly that she doesn’t like losing and absorbing  lessons as she goes. She ends up in Russia playing international chess leaders. And winning. This leads to more tournaments, newspaper articles, international travel. And, perhaps a Disney film.

What it doesn’t lead to is major life change. Mutesi stays in posh hotels and eats well at tournaments. Then she and her teammates go home to their shacks, devoid of electricity, subject to terrible sewage-laden floods, and help their parents scrounge for food each day. Crother’s book will help Mutesi continue her education (Katende’s students all go to school now and, by all accounts, are good students). But, whether chess will lead her out of Katwe is hard to know.

Crother’s quotes Mutesi at length from the journals she keeps while she travels and her letters to her mom. Her candor, and Katende’s, conveys a restrained enthusiasm. She recognizes that little has changed, but that she continues to have amazing opportunities. (She was in Brooklyn last week.)

Mutesi does not succeed in a vacuum. Like Brown, she is encircled by a support system, from her mother and siblings, to her coach and teammates, to the Ugandan and international chess federations. Sports Outreach International and other philanthropists have made all of this possible.

We don’t know how Mutesi’s story will end. She could end up with a soaring career and break the cycle of poverty. Or she could end up like Fernando Ramos da Silva, a Brazilian street kid whose starring role in the film Pixote (Hector Babenco, Brazil, 1981) made him a symbol of hope, and then may have led to his early demise. I’m hopeful that her support system will embrace her and help her make the transition from chess phenomenon to whatever it is she wants to be.

These books remind us of our relative privilege. Mutesi doesn’t know how to spell her own name until she gets a passport. Brown has her familial stability ripped away from her and is plummeted down a rabbit hole from which the only means of escape is determination. Each struggle to find food to eat and clothes to wear. Certainly, they make it easy to count our own blessings, even the blessing of being able to read. Neither is an easy read. But both women’s stories reward your investment of time.

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