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Reviews: When You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

E&H Bookblog

Reviews: When You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

Easty Lambert-Brown


Winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, a slender book that moves across genres—blended poetry and prose, memoir, journal, academic and personal essay—to speak of life as a young African-American woman.

“People who love me but not my skin tell me at least I’m a pretty dark-skinned girl, an insult as salutation,” 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: She writes of the self-satisfaction of nonblack professors assigning texts by black writers who “taught them something about their whiteness” and the inevitable moment in which the N-word arises. “It just doesn’t sound good,” she writes. Collective conditioning, collective guilt, respectability politics, institutional racism: Though only 10 pages long, the essay packs a lot of punch into a short space, and with luck it will produce at least some of the desired effect of lessening the use of a word that, Allen writes, produces “an instantly unstable, volatile feeling.” 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.” Some of the pieces are less consequential, among them a notebook-ish account of a visit to Paris, but most are memorable indeed: “We all stay broken," she writes in one essay, “and are all good at breaking.”

A promising debut from a writer with much to say.

Pub Date: April 15th, 2019

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17th, 2019,

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2019


“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 

“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