Is there something you want – or don’t want – from life that goes against everything you’ve ever heard about what you should want? For example, are you a woman who wants to stay single? Who doesn’t want to have kids? Whose religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are unfathomable to the people you grew up with?
If so, I think you will cherish Keturah Kendrick’s new book, No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time – and I’ve read a whole lot of books.
Born in New Orleans and living in New York, Kendrick is a 44-year-old black woman who chose to stay single, to have no kids, and to practice Buddhism. She owns those choices, utterly unapologetically. She lives a great big meaningful life. She’s a writer. She’s taught creative writing workshops in public school classrooms in the U.S. She’s conducted research on arranged marriages in India. She’s spent time, often while teaching, in China, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Ghana.
In the abstract, it is easy enough to dole out advice for living the life that is right for you: If you want to be single, be single. If you don’t want to have kids, don’t have kids. But how does that play out every day of your life, in conversations with friends and relatives and strangers who just don’t believe you could ever really want to live like that? Who are just as committed to their decisions to marry and have kids? And how do you do you, when some of the most influential television shows of your time, including even some that you love, make no room for people like you? That’s the heart and soul of No Thanks.
Several times, Kendrick fell in love with decent black men who loved her back. She had long-term, committed relationships with them. She could have been married, but she chose not to be:
“I am not married because I do not want to be. I am not married because I have not seen any iteration of the institution that inspires me to choose it. I am single because I am enough for me. A chance to get chosen neither motivates nor moves me.”
Kendrick knows the standard scripts for navigating a life that others disparage. For example, if you want to stand by your decision not to have children while dodging the moral opprobrium that comes with that choice, this is what you do: You dote on other people’s children, such as your nieces and nephews. You spend lavishly – gifts, maybe even a college education. You spend time with those children – lots of time, lots of quality time. That’s not the formula Keturah Kendrick follows, though. She is not looking for permission to live her life on her terms, and she’s not seeking absolution for not following the prescribed life path.
To stand up for your life choices without apology means withstanding discomfort. At first, when you are young, the disquiet is your own. But, Kendrick notes, “The great gift of aging is the ability to release yourself from responsibility for others’ reaction to you. The relinquishing of such burden comes with an additional prize: finding people’s disapproval or shock about who you are ridiculous.”
What do you do, though, with other people’s uneasiness? Here’s one of Kendrick’s answers: “I had stopped making any effort to censor my disinterest in raising children and frame my joy with being childfree in ways that made other people comfortable.”
If you think that Kendrick is going to get pelted with the accusation of selfishness, you are right. Her examination of what that means is brilliant. Many readers will start out thinking that Kendrick does indeed put herself first and will consider that a bad thing. As they keep reading, though, a new realization will sneak up on them: Kendrick is acutely attuned to other people. She respects what they need in ways that are quite rare.
In some memoirs by single women, the author ends up single long past the age at which she expected to be married with children, and she is frightened and horrified by that. But as she continues to live her single life, she has a revelation: single life can be a very good life. No Thanks is not that kind of narrative. “I’d been clear about who I was ever since the moment girls in my sixth-grade class, who had been discussing what they would name their future daughters, turned and waited for me to play this bizarre game with them,” Kendrick tells us.
Most of the books about single life are written by white women, and they are mostly about single white women. That means readers have missed out on vast swatches of the experience of living single. What’s more, the books getting big-time media attention are nearly all written by white women or white men. No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone is a great example of why that should change. This wasn’t just another book about single people. It offered insights and perspectives I had not found anywhere else.
Not everyone is going to like this book. Many will resist it with a passion. They will feel threatened and they will lash out at Keturah Kendrick. I think Kendrick knows that. She’s faced that resistance to her life choices many times before and lived to tell about it in this forthright book. I think she should feel proud of any and all blowback No Thanks generates. The anger shows that she is touching a nerve. Not just touching it – clutching it.
Good for her. Good for us.
To all the thoughtful readers out there, I award this book one of my highest praises: It will stay with you. While you are reading it, it will feel like fun. You will have laugh-out-loud moments. But No Thanks goes way beyond mere entertainment. It is wise. It is profound. It just may change your life if you let it.