The Talking Drum

(18 customer reviews)


a novel by Lisa Braxton

Printed Copy – 978-1-77133-741-0 – $22.95
Accessible ePUB – 978-1-77133-742-7 – $11.99
PDF – 978-1-77133-744-1 – $11.99

318 Pages
April 29, 2020

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Winner, 2020 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Award
Winner, 2020 National Association of Black Journalists Outstanding Literary Award
Winner, 2021 IPPY Gold Medal – Urban Fiction
Finalist, 2020 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards – General Fiction
Finalist, 2021 International Book Awards – Multicultural Fiction

August 6, 2020—Lisa Braxton, author of the debut novel, The Talking Drum, is a recipient of an Outstanding Literary Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. The award was announced today at the organization’s virtual convention where she gave a book talk during The Author Showcase. The Showcase selection committee considered The Talking Drum compelling, socially relevant, and notable for its inclusion of African American history.

It is 1971. The fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts, is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place. Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi’s dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.

For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage. Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.

Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.

The Talking Drum explores intra-racial, class, and cross-cultural tensions, along with the meaning of community and belonging. Examining the profound impact gentrification has on people in many neighborhoods, and the way in which being uprooted affects the fabric of their families, friendships, and emotional well-being, the novel not only focuses on the immigrant experience, but the way in which the immigrant/African American neighborhood interface leads to friction and tension. This book thus provides a springboard to important discssions on race and class differences, on the treatment of immigrants, as well as the government’s relationship and responsibility to society.

“A book that is sensual, fraught, and above all, human.” —The Boston Globe

“With an insider’s eye for nuance, Lisa Braxton captures both the powerlessness and the resilience of communities threatened by urban development. At once tragic and hopeful, The Talking Drum is a heartfelt exploration of the deep roots of gentrification, brimming with vitality and richly drawn characters.”
–Wil Medearis, author of Restoration Heights

The Talking Drum, set in the early 1970’s, deftly weaves the stories of three young, struggling couples living near Petite Africa, a community of African and West Indian immigrants. Issues of gentrification, race, gender politics, and class inform this propulsive story, but at its heart, this is a novel about who you love and who becomes your home. A moving and skillful debut.”
–Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One Is Coming To Save Us

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Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Fiction Writers Program and was a finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University, her M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University, and her B.A. in Mass Media from Hampton University. Her stories have been published in anthologies and literary journals. She lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area. www.lisabraxton.com

“He seems like a nice guy,” Sydney said after the officers walked out the door.

“One of the best.” Kwamé stubbed out his cigarette in the tin ashtray on the table. “Wilson was all set to go to college, but then his mother had a stroke. He decided to stay here to look after her, thinking he’d go to college later, but he never did.”

“So he became a police officer?”

“Not at first. He did factory work for a while. Then when folks in Liberty Hill got sick of the cops bashing their heads in, I led some protests, and we got some of our people to study for the police officer’s exam. We had to put together study groups because the exam was rigged. Strib joined the study group, took the test, and passed. We’re trying to get more of our people in the pipeline.”

The waitress brought their orders: two plates of red snapper with plantains, Jamaican rice and peas, and collard greens. The waitress left and returned a few moments later with iced tea for Sydney and a cup of coffee for Kwamé.

He pulled back his sleeve. “You’ve been here now about twenty-four hours. You must have some questions about our fair city.”

She wasn’t sure if he had actually checked his Rolex or was looking for an excuse to show it off. “Yes. Malachi said you know everything there is to know about Bellport.”

“I’m your man. Ask me whatever you want.” His eyes floated down to her cleavage.

She looked away. “I can see why the city declared Petite Africa a blighted community, but it looks no worse than what I’m seeing out here.” She gestured toward the street.

He scooped rice onto his fork and spread it on top of the fish. “You’re right. A while back, the city tried to declare Liberty Hill a blighted community. It fit the bill. The mayor was secretly talking to the developers about building the arena project here. I put together a committee of folks to protest the project. Our complaint was that the city was gonna go behind our backs and take our property without telling us what they were up to. We collected money, got an attorney, signed petitions. When the newspapers got the story. City Hall was so embarrassed that they held a public hearing, which is what they should’ve done in the first place. We got four hundred people to show up at council chambers.” He took a bite of his fish.

“So the city backed off under pressure?” Sydney asked.

Kwamé shook his head. “The city was still gonna go through with it. The only thing that saved us was that one of the council members was doing payback on the mayor because the mayor didn’t do snow removal on his street the year before. Anyway, this dude on council defends our cause. He defended us better than our attorney did. The press had a field day with it. And that’s what got the city to back off of Liberty Hill.”

Sydney cut the tail of the fish and then severed the head. As Kwamé had done, she spread rice on top of the fish. “So how did the project end up going to Petite Africa?”

“The developer was getting impatient. He was threatening to pull out of the project and take it to Jersey. And the mayor didn’t want that embarrassment on his watch. In fact, he had grand plans for the Harborview Project to be part of his legacy. He wrote a letter to the planning commission recommending that the South End, Petite Africa, be the alternative site for the development. It’s a land grab. The city declares Petite Africa a blighted community, with rundown homes, bad streets, lousy schools. The people get burned out. The city gets state and federal funding to rebuild it. The immigrants get pushed out and the white folks with their money move in.”

“How much of a chance do the people there have of stopping it?”

He shook his head. “Slim to none. A lot of the people down there are immigrants. In some of their home countries, you do what you have to in order to stay away from the government, unless you want to get your head bashed in or blown off. The last thing you want is for the government to get in your face. So they’re not that vocal and don’t fight. Then you have the issue of split loyalties. They’re all from different countries, mostly first generation. Their loyalty is to their home country, not to each other. So they don’t want to unify. And there’s a language barrier. Many of them learn English growing up, but the American accent is so different from what they heard coming along. They have a hard time understanding the language, not to mention, the laws, municipal statutes, and rules.”

Sydney was enjoying the fish with the rice mixed in. She topped it off with a little plantain.

“Another factor working against them is the change in the makeup of city council,” Kwamé continued. “That councilman I told you about who was getting back at the mayor lost re-election by the time the city was seriously looking at Petite Africa, so they didn’t have him to advocate for them.”

“That’s a shame. I mean, I guess it’s good for the economy to get this development, but it’s not right to take those people’s homes.”

“There’s a restaurant owner over there from some African county. Senegal, I think. Mustapha Mendy. He’s the godfather of Petite Africa. At least that’s what they call him. He’s organized a committee of some of the other property owners and tenants on those blocks. They’re fighting eminent domain. They hired an attorney like we did. They say they’re not selling. They’re trying to preserve at least a little bit of the neighborhood. Kwamé wiped away flakes of rice that had landed in his goatee. “I went down there every so often to give them advice. I told them to be more strategic with the rallies and protests.” He shook his head. “They showed me no respect. I can’t worry about the immigrants anymore. More power to them.”

Kwamé seemed to be involved in just about everything. She chased down her spicy greens with some iced tea.

“You know, that used to be our neighborhood, ” he continued.

“What do you mean?”

“When black folks first started coming here from the South, they moved to that area, and that’s how it got its name.”

“I thought it was because of the African immigrants.”

He shook his head. “The label was put on us by the white folks. It wasn’t no compliment. It goes back some fifty years. The men got jobs at the wharves and in the factories; the women worked mostly as domestics. By the early 1940s they were getting themselves together. The women went to secretarial school or community college, and the men worked up the ladder in the trades. There were a lot of Jews in Liberty Hill from Eastern Europe at the time. We had a little melting pot going—the Jews and the blacks. The blacks left Petite Africa and moved into Liberty Hill once they could afford it. The Jews moved to Brookline, Newton, Belmont. The Africans and West Indians moved into Petite Africa, replacing the black people. No other place would rent to them.” He raised his cup toward the waitress to get her to refresh his coffee. “You know how it is, once our people get a little something in their pocket, they think they have ‘arrived.’ They want to forget where they came from.”

Sydney mulled this over for a while. She knew that her grandparents on both sides of the family had moved from Virginia to Western Massachusetts at the turn of the century. They rarely went back south for visits. She recalled her grandmother on her mother’s side talking about working hard to lose her southern accent because people made fun of her. Sydney wondered if there was a downside when people distanced themselves from their background.

Kwamé wiped his hands on his napkin and checked his nails. They were perfectly straight with a clear polish finish on them. Sydney suspected that he’d had them professionally buffed. “We’ve had a serious problem with absentee landlords, slumlords,” he said. “That’s why the conditions around here are so bad. As it is now, Liberty Hill is isolated. You saw how it was when I drove you around. You have to deal with the one-way streets, dead ends, traffic patterns that make no sense, the potholes. Then there’s the drug problems and car thefts we’ve been dealing with. But Harborview will change it all. When they build that arena and off ramp, this will be a new neighborhood. Once the construction’s done, you’ll see thousands of people going to the concerts and the sporting events. Police patrols will pick up. The foot traffic will spill over into Liberty Hill. Having people like Tovah, like you and Malachi investing in Liberty Hill, revitalizing it, is critical to the future of this neighborhood.”

Sydney finished her food.

Then Kwamé reached across the table and squeezed her wrist.“So what do you think? You think you’ll have enough to keep you busy around here?”

18 reviews for The Talking Drum

  1. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Eileen Gonzalez
    Foreword Reviews – May/June 2020

    Lisa Braxton’s historical novel The Talking Drum captures a vibrant immigrant community in its death throes.

    Petite Africa is in trouble. The city of Bellport plans to demolish this rundown, immigrant-majority neighborhood and build a civic center in its place. In addition to this crisis, an arsonist is targeting apartment buildings on the chopping block. The people who live in and around Petite Africa deal with each threat in their own ways, either coming together or breaking apart in the face of an uncertain, even dangerous future.

    Set in the early 1970s, the story revolves around three couples: Sydney and Malachi, newlyweds who are planning to open a bookstore and cultural center; Della and Kwamé, whose unhealthy relationship founders when Della begins to assert herself; and Natalie and Omar, whose marriage is crumbling under the weight of their poverty. Each individual has their own problems, goals, hopes, and fears to contend with, even as their neighborhood fights to survive.

    Each character brings a distinct perspective. Uncertain but determined Sydney, steady Omar, and jaded yet hopeful Della see the happenings in Petite Africa and neighboring Liberty Hill through the lenses of their previous experiences, both good and bad. They struggle to improve their lives in the face of loss, racism, betrayal, and government indifference.

    Petite Africa is a unique blend of activists and business owners, of dynamic outdoor markets and burned-out buildings. Despite the challenges presented by slumlords and bureaucrats, the residents go about their lives as best they can, fighting for what they believe in. All they have is their resilience, their memories, and each other. But perhaps, in the end, that is all they need.

    The Talking Drum is an absorbing historical novel about the importance of community in shaping who you are and what you can accomplish.

  2. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Debutiful – May 1, 2020

    This small press book is filled with big ideas. Braxton tackles gentrification in her debut book set in 1970s Massachusetts. She spent time as a journalist where she was nominated for an Emmy Award, which help lends to the craft of the novel. It’s very matter of fact and provides a thorough insight into intra-racial relations of the time.

  3. Donna Decker

    I really, really LOVED Lisa Braxton’s THE TALKING DRUM (2020). The novel takes place in a dying factory town in Massachusetts where cash and the political will of powerful men behind urban development will displace a thriving black community. Syndey Stallworth left law school to support her husband’s dream of opening a bookstore in the heart of this community. Omar Bassari is a drummer from Senegal who hopes to bring his African culture to the world. Other beautifully crafted and nuanced characters live robust, if poor, lives in Bellport, and all of them resist the coming gentrification even as suspicious fires ravage their town and livelihoods. What Braxton offers is a cast of characters who bravely take a stance against white power – and I cared deeply for all of them, for their indefatigable spirits, for their heartbreaking losses, for the crimes perpetrated against them. There were surprises. There was resilience. There was a heroic stance against brutal power – all of which makes for required reading — especially NOW.

  4. Inanna Admin

    5 Debut Novels You Should Read This May
    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Crime Reads – May 27, 2020

    Lisa Braxton’s debut is beautifully written (perhaps why it’s being released by a press more known for their poetry), and transports us to early 1970s Massachusetts, where a predominantly black neighborhood is about to fall victim to the twin forces of gentrification and institutional racism, with a strong dose of corruption on the side. Braxton follows the residents as they attempt to fight back against their new reality, despite the city’s nefarious intentions of “urban renewal.”

  5. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Mallory Heart Recommends (Blog Tour) – June 1, 2020

    Review: 5 Stars
    A fascinating and original exploration of urban “gentrification” from the viewpoint of the residents and shopkeepers most directly affected, rather than the upscale citizenry who directly benefit from sports stadiums, gourmet shops, and hugely expensive loft apartments. The characters are deeply delineated and the urban setting is brought vividly to life along with the concomitant issues, domestic, political, and socio-economic.

  6. Inanna Admin

    Ms. Magazine: June 2020 Reads for the Rest of Us
    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Karla Strand – June 4, 2020

    This debut takes on the topic of gentrification of African American and immigrant neighborhoods. Beyond that, it is about the neighbors themselves: their hopes and dreams, their sacrifices and challenges. Themes of race, class and culture are skilfully woven throughout.

  7. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Tomorrow Is Another Day (Blog Tour) – June 5, 2020

    I enjoyed The Talking Drum. So much cultural diversity made it a very vivid read. I think I enjoyed Omar’s story the most, but all of the characters were believable and powerful, as they struggled against overwhelming odds without a lot of hope or support.

    The drums were a powerful thread running through the narrative, and I loved how they held everything together, echoing the message of the story.

  8. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by The Literary Sleuth (Blog Tour) – June 12, 2020

    The Talking Drum is a timely novel about the gentrification of urban cities and the power and determination of the people. The novel is set in 1971 and the city of Bellport, Mass. has been slowly declining, and there looms new development. There is a clash between community and culture as people have to recognize their differences, but also bridge their similarities in order to support their neighborhoods that are on the verge of major change.

    I appreciated the many different characters that played a role in this novel. I also appreciate that Lisa Braxton illuminated the misunderstandings that people have about each other from differing communities. This novel is an important portrait of the diverse cities. It is timely for people to read about the unification of neighborhoods. While people may be vastly different in culture and tradition, they are all people and can strive together.

  9. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Elliot Scribbles (Blog Tour) – June 13, 2020

    The Gist

    An ensemble of characters provides diverse and individualized perspectives on life in a neighbourhood that is deemed unimportant by the “higher” social strata.

    Each chapter tells the overall story of displacement, personal and interpersonal struggle, and gentrification through the eyes of one of several main characters. Each one is in one way or another connected with the other characters in the story to varying degrees.

    The Details

    What struck me most was the author’s skill in portraying the characters, and I’m not only talking about the main characters, but also the secondary and even tertiary characters with so much care and dedication.

    The one word that keeps popping into mind whenever I think about this amazing story is “rich”.

    The characters, the story, the narration. Everything has a richness to it that makes reading it such a rewarding and almost personal experience.

    I could tell that the author created each character with a lot of love for the craft. Most of the time we read a story with a strong protagonist and it works well enough, but the secondary characters are only thrown in to help out the protagonist in some way.

    In The Talking Drum each character, regardless of how small their presence in the story, has their own purpose. The reader can sense and understand that this person, although we may only get a glimpse of them in the story, has their own life.

    Writing a story of so much substance is a wonderful accomplishment and greatly adds to the reader’s enjoyment.

    The same can be said about the general narration. The description of places, of the food, the colours, even the weather all add to that special experience. It felt as if I was standing right behind the character, inside the story, seeing, hearing, smelling what they are experiencing.

    It made my skin tingle. I felt present and involved.

    I appreciated the way the various issues were addressed in the story. How the characters told of their struggle through their actions, thoughts and emotions.

    The writing was superb. It was easy to follow and even easier to get lost within the pages of the story.

    The Verdict

    Overall, I loved this story. I am so grateful this book was brought to my attention. I would absolutely recommend it.

  10. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Flying High Reviews (Blog Tour) – June 13, 2020

    The summary may lead readers to believe that female protagonist Sydney Stallworth is a character who solely plays a support role to others. It’s true that she’s supportive, but I thought she genuinely believed in her husband’s business. The potential of The Talking Drum to become a center for African American culture was important to her. Yet she also pursued her own goals as well by becoming a local journalist. If it weren’t for her dedication in following the protests of the African immigrants in Petite Africa against the “urban redevelopment” that would shatter their lives, the truth about the fires in that neighborhood might never have been discovered. I admired Sydney. Because she cared so deeply, I felt that she inspired everyone around her to follow their own dreams.

    Della Tolliver is an example of someone who clearly benefited from the presence of Sydney in her life, though Della would never have believed it at the outset. When we first meet Della, she’s a very unhappy woman. I didn’t like her very much at that point, but she improves her life over the course of the narrative with Sydney’s help.

    Just as in real life, there is no permanent victory against the forces of “urban re-development” in The Talking Drum. Let us hope that there will always be those like Lisa Braxton who will lift up the voices of the marginalized communities that could be impacted before it’s too late.

  11. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Marshmallow Pudding (Blog Tour) – June 14, 2020

    The Talking Drum is a beautifully-written debut novel about dreams, community and friendship.

    The story reflects the author’s experience as a former television journalist, and i enjoyed getting to know more about the journalism industry through reading about the main character, sydney, who recently starts to write for her local paper. she has so much passion for her job, you can literally feel it coursing through the pages.

    Apart from her career in journalism, the author based the story on other aspects of her life as well. she grew up in her parents’ clothing store, which her dad had dreamed of opening a long time ago, and remembers the store fondly as a hub for discussions and exchanging ideas, which is similar to the bookstore and cultural centre in the book. in the novel, sydney and her husband, malachi jointly own a bookstore and cultural centre called The Talking Drum, which mainly focuses on african american literature and is a place for scholarly debate. malachi has always wanted to open a bookstore, and seeing him finally achieve it with the support of his wife is such an incredibly beautiful thing to read about. in the novel, the bookstore becomes a neutral ground for residents of petite africa and liberty hill, who often have conflicting views because of the urban renewal project threatening to destroy petite africa. it’s heartwarming to see people gathered there and having a good time, forgetting about their worries even if it’s just for a short while.

    The bookstore’s real-life counterpart, the author’s parents’ clothing store, has a sad ending similar to what petite africa is facing in the book, and in the early 2000s, it closed to pave way for a redevelopment project. everything about the story is realistic and well thought-out, and you can really tell that the subject matter is something close to the author’s heart. (you can read more about the story behind the talking drum here.)

    The petite africa community (which is sadly fictional) is also really interesting to read about. it’s far from perfect, but it’s filled with such rich cultures. for many new immigrants from africa and the west indies, petite africa is usually where they first stay before figuring out what their next step will be, so the population there comprises people from many different places. i loved reading about uncle mustapha’s senegalese restaurant – the dishes he serves, especially the lamb stew, sound absolutely delicious, and i cannot stop thinking about them! i have never tried senegalese cuisine, but i really hope to, if given the chance. omar’s passion for traditional african music and the drums is also really inspiring. this may sound cliche, but i really admire how he believes in himself, his dreams, and his craft no matter what, even if those who are closest to him are doubtful of his success. it also melts my heart seeing how determined uncle mustapha is in defending his home and protesting against the demolition of petite africa – the characters in this book are so strong-willed and i am 100% here for it.

    In conclusion, The Talking Drum is an absolutely fantastic novel and i would highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Chimamanda Adichie’s work.

  12. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Girl Who Reads (Blog Tour) – June 15, 2020

    Lisa Braxton received award nominations for her career as a television journalist, short stories, and novels. The Talking Drum is personally inspired, as her parents were caught up in the middle of a gentrification project. Many people already can have an issue with governments seizing land and property by eminent domain, which features in this novel just as it had in Lisa’s life. Petite Africa is a largely immigrant neighborhood with shops and rooming houses as well as apartment buildings. The plan for Bellport was to take over the area to create a $64 million civic center complex, luxury high rise apartments, marina, restaurants, and an off-ramp from the highway, to be completed February 1974.

    Lives are very different on either side of the river, and even between the different homes in the neighborhoods. We have quite the cast of characters to get to know in the beginning, so we get to know them and their day to day lives. The fires and relationship concerns are intensely written, and you do have the emotional connection to the people there right along with Sydney. Racism is touched on in real ways, as well as the problems that come with poverty. There are some benefits to gentrification, as a civic center could keep kids off the street and give them positive outlets. At the same time, relocating entire families uproots their way of life and the connections that they made in their community. There’s no easy answer to these concerns, and this book approaches that in a realistic way.

  13. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by PoptheButterfly Reads (Blog Tour/Instagram) – June 15, 2020

    I think this book is really good. The book had a great story and it’s a very important one to tell, especially with what’s going on right now. The book was impactful and I think that the writing did pretty well with the subject and with conveying the emotion. The book also had great world building…Well done novel.

  14. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed on Author Anthony Avina’s Blog (Blog Tour) – June 16, 2020

    Race relations, immigration, and the role government plays in our daily lives take center stage in author Lisa Braxton’s historical fiction novel The Talking Drum

    The Review

    There has never been a more relevant or prominent moment for a novel of this magnitude than now. Such a rich and powerful narrative takes center stage in this book, creating a tense and emotional atmosphere that many today can identify with.

    The characters are true standouts, as the author expertly creates relatable and memorable characters that do an amazing job of embodying the theme of immigration, race relations, and government roles as a whole. While a historical fiction and fiction setting, the message, and heart of the story shines brightly through and conveys the hardships that have come with trying to find common ground, find equality, and integrate it into everyone’s daily lives.

    Especially when readers are taken into an often overlooked subject like the tension that can arise in communities such as African American/Black neighborhoods amongst its citizens and immigrants settling into the area, and the need to find common ground and come together as a whole community in the face of great upheaval and tragedy.

    The Verdict

    A well-read, highly engaging and richly drawn-out narrative, author Lisa Braxton’s The Talking Drum explores so much, from history and the culture of a group of people and the importance of remembering that culture, to the struggles for immigrants to make a new life for themselves and the hardships that come with intra-racial relationships as well. It’s a novel that speaks volumes in its message and theme and deserves to be read during these tumultuous times. Be sure to grab your copy today! Rating: 10/10

  15. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by The Minerva Reader – July 5, 2020

    An engrossing, beautifully written novel about reaching deep within when one’s dreams and expectations don’t turn out the way one would hope. The Talking Drum is about what happens when life hurls one challenge and betrayal after another. This is a book about resilience, renewed hope and courage, the power of love, family, enduring relationships and fresh starts, racial tensions, class, friendship and careers, all explored by a rich and vibrant cast of characters.

    Let the African drums talk indeed, as this book so successfully does.

  16. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Story Circle Network – August 3, 2020


    The city of Bellport has set a date to exercise eminent domain in Petite Africa. But as more fires occur, displacing more residents, suspicions arise. Are they the work of a single arsonist or a matter of larger greedy plan? It is as Kwame Rodriguez conjectures, “The people get burned out. The city gets state and federal funding to rebuild it. The immigrants get pushed out and the white folks with their money move in.”

    The Talking Drum also explores the delicate topic of intraracial prejudices between African-Americans and Black African nationals. It may come as a revelation to some readers that racism occurs not just between whites and Blacks. Through her characterizations, Braxton compels readers to measure their own degree of racism, that universal schism that divides us.

    This is a story of the complex relationships and tensions that exist within a precariously balanced community. The characters are well rounded and I came to either care about–or greatly dislike–them. And through it all, Braxton reveals the issues that all humans face: sacrifice, greed, power, love, and loyalty. Highly recommended.

  17. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Hilary Daninhirsch
    Historical Novel Society – February 2021

    The deleterious effects of the gentrification of a Black neighborhood in the early 1970s are explored with insight in The Talking Drum.

    Three couples, whose lives will intersect, are at the center of this novel, which takes place in the fictional factory town of Bellport, Massachusetts. Two couples live in the Liberty Hill section of the city, while the other lives in neighboring Petite Africa, a rundown area that is the home to many West African immigrants who have brought their traditions and food to the local culture and businesses. Petite Africa has suffered a series of suspicious fires ever since the news broke that a developer wants to raze the neighborhood for an urban redevelopment plan, which will in effect displace the residents.

    An idealistic couple, Malachi and Sydney, start a bookstore called The Talking Drum that doubles as an African cultural center. Across the street are Della and Kwame, who have a volatile relationship; Kwame owns a record shop that seems to be entirely devoid of customers, while across town, Omar, a Senegalese immigrant with dreams of resurrecting his drumming career, is trying to keep his wife, Natalie, from leaving him, as she despises their living conditions.

    Each character is fully fleshed out and sheds light on the backstories of those affected by having their communities taken away from them under the guise of civic “improvement.”

    The book delves into race relations, the immigrant experience, poverty, and the impact of gentrification on the stability of family and community. Rounded out by strong characters, a hot button political issue, and an unsolved mystery or two, this is a book that may cause the reader to see gentrification from a new vantage point.

  18. Inanna Admin

    The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton
    reviewed by Small Press Picks – April 19, 2021

    This powerful and moving debut novel paints a bittersweet portrait of a community’s struggles against forces that threaten to destroy it and also the dreams–and, sometimes, the lives–of its residents. Equally compelling are the stories of individuals involved in or affected by these struggles. Sometimes, they are left to rely on little more than their own resilience and, against all odds, a sense of hope.

    Set in the early seventies, in the dying factory town of Bellport, Massachusetts, the novel centers on a threat to a part of Bellport known as Petite Africa, once home to African Americans who migrated there from the South, and later populated by Africans and West Indians. (By the time of the novel, many earlier residents of Petite Africa had moved to a somewhat more expensive part of Bellport known as Liberty Hill, which also figures into the story.)

    As the novel opens, residential properties and businesses in Petite Africa are slated to be taken by eminent domain so that the city can redevelop the area with a civic center and luxury apartments, among other things. At the same time, the neighborhood has become the target of multiple fires, possibly the result of arson by slumlords wanting to collect insurance payments before the city can take their property. These fires remain a constant threat to the lives and livelihoods of Petite Africa’s residents.

    Braxton deftly weaves together the stories of people who are trying to realize their dreams in the face of these dangers. One of them is Omar Bassari, a talented drummer from Senegal, who hopes to succeed as a performer and recording artist and also open a drumming institute to nurture a new generation of drummers. Another is Omar’s Uncle Mustapha, whose Le Baobab restaurant has become both a fixture of Petite Africa and a draw to customers beyond the neighborhood. Mustapha also leads a long-shot effort to fight the city’s plans to take over and redevelop the neighborhood.

    Additionally, Braxton explores the struggles and dreams of certain residents of the Liberty Hill section of Bellport, which managed to escape being taken by the city for redevelopment yet faces challenges of its own. Though opening a business there appears to be a risky proposition, this is a risk that one young couple, Sydney and Malachi Stallworth, is willing to take. A Victorian they purchase in the neighborhood becomes both their home and the site of their Talking Drum Bookstore and Cultural Center. As Malachi says to Sydney, “Every time people see the name [of the business], they’ll think of our African ancestors pounding on the drums to celebrate births, marriages, a call to war. Our Talking Drum is going to break it down for people, teach them about politics, economics, the Black Arts Movement.”

    Yet the Talking Drum is more Malcahi’s dream than Sydney’s, and she’s put her goal of finishing law school on hold to help her husband get the business off the ground. (As a freelance photographer and journalist, she also becomes a pivotal part of bringing the troubles in Petite Africa to light.) Through the story of Sydney–and of Della Tolliver, a neighbor whose dreams of completing her education are undermined by her partner–the novel takes care to explore the possible costs of putting one’s aspirations on hold, and the risks of giving up on them entirely. Sydney’s and Della’s efforts to hold onto their dreams in the face of doubts and difficulties are inspiring, and they show the powers of persistence and resilience.

    At one point, the novel takes a tragic turn, leaving Omar in particular with little more to rely on than resilience. In time, though, the larger community–which he’d connected to through his drumming and his Uncle Mustapha–makes it clear that he is not alone and that he has reasons for hope despite an uncertain future and the challenges that future will no doubt bring. Through this and other sections of the novel, Braxton presents powerful examinations of the strengths that communities can bring to individuals while never losing sight of the conflicts within communities and between them and other interests.

    As a final note, two captivating whodunnits are woven into the novel: first, the question of who’s responsible for the fires endangering Petite Africa; second, who might be behind thefts of money and art at the Talking Drum. These mysteries make for compelling, and at times heartbreaking, reading.

    In conclusion, The Talking Drum is a gripping, thought-provoking, and emotionally rich novel, one that I highly recommend.

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