In his poem Harlem, Langston Hughes considers what happens to a dream deferred: “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” he asks, “Or fester like a sore—/and then run?” Of all the visceral similes Hughes contemplates, however, it’s the final, fragmented question that rang through my mind again and again as I read Joel Christian Gill’s memoir Fights. Italicized, positioned all by itself at the end of the poem, the line punches straight to the gut: “Or does it explode?”
Gill’s memoir is painful, fractured, and violent. A mostly chronological memoir bookended by a prologue and epilogue set in the present day, Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence tells the story of Gill’s growing up. From the deaths of Gill’s father and grandmother to unrelenting sexual abuse at the hands of family members and family friends to a barrage of violence directed at him by bullies and racists both in and out of school, the memoir shows clearly how young Gill was pushed to the point of explosion, lashing out with a combination of numbness and violence. Rays of light shine through in unexpected friendships, acts of kindness from a caring neighbor, and when Gill discovers the power and joy of reading books and creating art, but the lion’s share of the book is a depiction of a childhood almost relentlessly filled with trauma. While this relentless trauma often appears to the young Gill of Fights as an inescapable cycle, he is eventually able to escape the chaos and abuse through stable relationships and his own work as an artist.
Gill’s artistic style is cartoonish, with bold lines, mostly matte colors, and sometimes exaggerated expressions of motion or emotions. Effective symbolic motifs to represent different emotional states are used throughout, such as a flame appearing over a character’s head to indicate a flare of rage, or a character’s face sinking into deep water to indicate a sense of overwhelm and despair. Though the cartoonish style at first feels like jarring contrast to the heavy subject matter, it ultimately serves as a bridge, making both the pain and, unfortunately, the normalcy, of these traumas approachable and recognizable. Unfortunately, the narrative is at times disjointed and almost inclusive to a fault: portions of Gill’s childhood and adolescence could have been excised without any real loss to the narrative, and such paring down would have allowed space for the more aching, triumphant, and generally profound moments to resonate more strongly.
Classified as a memoir for adults, Fights would also appeal to older teens. While the book does clearly reference the multiple sexual assaults Gill experienced as a child, there is never visual depiction of said assaults. Violence, including threats of gun violence, is also an integral part of Gill’s story; however, this violence is always positioned as exhausting, stressful, and scary—a last resort and something to be avoided whenever possible. Precisely because of the frankness with which Gill chronicles his own experiences, this book could speak to older teens just as surely as to the adult audience for which it’s intended. An intense and sometimes painful read, this memoir is also a powerful account of growing up in both the urban and rural South during the 1980s as a Black boy who has few looking out for him beyond himself.
By Joel Christian Gill
Oni Press, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: African-American, Black