By Natalie Baszile
***This review is a sort of fusion in which I am reviewing the novel as well as the T.V. adaptation of the same story. In order to clarify which of the two works I am referencing at one point or another be mindful that Queen Ava is the creator of the show and Queen Natalie is the OG who wrote the book that inspired it all. When ‘telenovela’ precedes a characters name I am referring to the character in the show unless otherwise noted.***
Natalie Baszile, Author of Queen Sugar & The Reason We Are Gathered Here Today
Queen Sugar is a story of misfortune and grace, in that order. Repeat.
The journeys of each character parallel the beauties and disasters in nature and Natalie Baszile constantly brings us full circle as we cycle through the ups and downs of life and love. We are introduced to our protagonist, Charley Bordelon, while she is in the midst of responding to a crisis. She is jumping into a new chapter of her life with her begrudging daughter, Micah. She has made the move from her home in California to the country side of a small town in Louisiana. In this novel, Charley journeys back home and in the process is confronted with the need to reconcile her past and present in order to get back to herself.
My interest in Queen Sugar, the novel, came from watching the television series based on the book. The telenovela had gotten TOO good and was only getting better, deeper, richer. So, long story longer, I refused to wait for the season to recommence in time for grinding season and decided to catch up with Ralph Angel and the gang via the book.
I had quite the appetite and fully intended to devour Queen Sugar but I soon learned of the critical differences between these two works that made for some major continuity issues in the larger storyline. As it turns out, this was good and bad; bad because unfortunately, I was not going to be able to get ahead of Queen Ava and pick-up where I left off in the show. Good Amazing because I was receiving the gift of a story all its own. There is an urgency and desperation I felt when reading the novel, and try as I might, I couldn’t anticipate the turning points. I was reintroduced to the characters and their backstories so all the beauties of amazing storytelling were allowed to unfold without me getting ahead of myself based on what I thought I knew.
More than a duplication of the story in print, the screen adaptation complements the novel and provides nuances and alternatives that redeem and develop the characters in important ways. On screen, the characters are allowed to be some of what they imagine themselves to be in the novel. Telenovela Ralph Angel, for example, actually possesses skills and experience that justify his big talk in the book. Telenovela Charley has access to resources that enable her to realize more quickly the dreams that were not within reach to the same extent in the novel.
Ava Duvernay has shaken things up in critical ways via character omissions and merges to create our onscreen favs. She has also adjusted critical components of identity for some of the characters. A character that is white in the book is black in the series; women and girls become Boyz II Men. In this way, important themes like gendered norms, race, community, history, and all the nuances in each of these things are explored in the form of character development.
Nova Bordelon, for example, does not exist in the novel but in the series Nova allows for the exploration of Black women dating white men in spite of the availability of their black brothers. Nova’s insatiable desire for white men (at least initially) provides a way to further develop the nuances of interracial dating and relationships and continue the conversation we started in the book but with different characters. In the novel, the swirl involved Charley as the black woman dating a white man while Telenovela Charley is loving on Remy Newell, a brother. He is also fine. Irresistible. This is important.
Series Remy is a fusion of the wise farm elder, Denton, and Charleys print lover, White Remy (stay with me).
Throughout the novel, the role of misfortune is huge. As in life, one person’s loss is another’s gain and Charley, every once in a while, happens to be on the receiving end of grace after weathering some pretty brutal storms.
Some major themes include freedom in the sense of self-agency and determination as well as financial freedom and also the role of religion and nature. Charley has a really difficult time navigating the cane farming business as a black woman with limited resources in an environment full of well-to-do white men.
In the case of religion and its importance in the lives of the characters we get to walk with Ralph Angel on his journey. At times, Queen Natalie allows us some insight into his mind and we find ourselves immersed in scripture. This is quite the paradox because Ralph Angel will literally be in the midst of doing some bull while quoting the Good Book. He knows the Bible but lives a personal truth that is devoid of integrity and compassion. The only exception is Blue, his son, who is often on the receiving end of tough love but love nonetheless. For Ralph Angel, religion is a matter of convenience and is important when it suits him. I actually hate Ralph Angel and in my opinion Miss Honey is to blame for his childish and selfish ways with her sourpuss self.
Moving on because I’m getting upset.
The Contributing Character Award goes to The German in spite of his relatively brief appearance because his contributions to Ralph Angel’s journey were important. His cameo doesn’t allow for significant character development so instead of a name he gets the title of ‘The German’. Much like the storm, the German has an equalizing role. Somehow, he is able to relate to Ralph Angel without intimidating him into a defensive mode fueled by his inflated sense of self. The work that The German does is also gritty and grimy enough that Ralph Angel isn’t so threatened by his position as “boss” that he wont work. Their relationship is impersonal enough that Ralph Angel can’t leverage the past to get what he wants and he is not able to play the emotional manipulation card he seems to have on deck at all times. The German’s no-nonsense fairness forces Ralph Angel to do the bare minimum on the job and then be resourceful enough to return the next day. The German stands his ground with Ralph Angel and even gives him a title, however mocking, to pacify his need for recognition beyond “menial worker”. ‘Professor’ is what the German calls him. Ralph Angel’s life depends on the lesson that he ultimately does not learn and as I’m reading I’m thinking we’re on the verge of a breakthrough because these important lessons can become milestones on his journey to a better self. It doesn’t last and herein lies my problem with this man. I am always somehow rooting for Ralph Angel to be okay- to do well and he lets me down EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And each upset is worse than the last.
TBQMFH Ralph Angel was THEE worst. Looking for the redemptive qualities a single redemptive quality was a pain and what I imagine it felt like for Charley to rummage through the cane looking for the wedding ring her bratty kid threw out the window. Out of NOT her own damn car window. At night. Into a cane field. This little girl also had the NERVE to cry.
Moving on, again.
In spite of the fact that Ralph Angel had very few redemptive qualities, the people around him were mostly enablers or passive and had a difficult time standing up to him. The German wasn’t having it. Respect.
Unlike Kofi SiriBae-Ralph Angel of Queen Ava’s Sugar, Queen Natalie’s Ralph Angel didn’t talk a good game and also had none of the required skills to back up what he was saying. He also KEPT talking about being an engineer major, when nobody even asked him, ever. Basically, he cant reasonably talk the shit that’s always on the tip of his tongue after a good Bible verse without somebody pulling his card.
He has an unwillingness to learn and work his way up; he positions himself as the authority in every situation even though he is always lacking in the required knowledge and experience and also the patience to learn and eventually qualify as the expert he imagines himself to be.
Actually, the redemptive quality might be his unending and unnerving capacity to always be making some shit up. So, he’s inventive and imaginative. #iguess
Also, shoutout to Kofi SiriBae and character redeemtion via good Ghanian genes. Bless him for blessing us.
The story was such a ride that by the end, I had completely surrendered to Queen Natalie’s imagination. Gratitude was what I felt for a final and important breakthrough while also feeling spent from the journey there. It was a trek. I feel and look disheveled after reading/sitting in one spot for way too long, then curling up, and later doubling over, always squinting. You get it. It’s been a long road and I need to go get me one of those knot necklaces.