I hadn’t read either of Erica Kennedy’s novels before I learned of her passing. I remembered the buzz around her debut work Bling, a juicy page-turner about a hip-hop mogul, a rising star, and the scandalous cast of characters weaving in and out of their lives. But I’d heard very little about her second novel, Feminista, a chick/chic lit book that earned moderate reviews, before her death. I immediately ordered a copy on Amazon, though, compelled by the same intrigue that seizes you when a distant family member passes and you scour the family photo albums, looking for clues about who she was.
Feminista is filled with evidence of who Erica Kennedy was as a writer. She was sardonic and biting, clever and character-driven, descriptive and decadent. The story of Sydney Zamora, a chronically discontent magazine writer who, upon achieving the height of success in her field, found herself feeling empty, without a family. Zamora, a formerly plump and sullen multiracial beauty who’d dieted down to a size six and suppressed all her insecurities in public, wasn’t an entirely sympathetic character. She was confrontational and cruel to her family, held unhealthy grudges, and pretended that each of the friends she loss to the commitments of marriage and motherhood had died of terminal illnesses. Still, you found yourself rooting for her happiness — or at least for her to find some sense of wellness by the book’s end.
In this way, Feminista is less a skewering of the romantic conventions of chick lit than it is a parable about mental health. Sydney has a therapist, but she holds her in open contempt and only shows up to their sessions at the end — just in time for the good doc to writer her a prescription for Xanax. She spends most of the novel medicating without the conversation that would be necessary to unpack her considerable baggage. And though she claims her new priority is to snag a husband and get started right away on children, it’s clear her real intent is to find acceptance and love in her personal life. Both of those needs seem to be intensifying with age, and the more she denies and ignores her need to be vulnerable, rather than steely and brash, the lonelier and more adrift she feels.
She keeps pushing away the one doggedly persistent suitor she has, even though she’s very obviously feeling him. Rather than finally confiding in her therapist, who inexplicably quits her practice in the last third of the book in order to marry, she finds herself repeatedly breaking down in front of a high-priced professional matchmaker, who briefly took her on as a client before letting her go after three of her dates found her to be “unstable” or “full of drama.”
By the time the whole thing ends, in traditional Jane Austen-esque fashion, we’re less relieved that Sydney’s found love (if not marriage and children) than we are that she’s worked through a great deal of her issues with grief, rejection, abandonment, and inadequacy. The man’s just icing.
We still know very little about the circumstance surrounding Kennedy’s death, but it’s always surreal to read, watch, or listen to the work of a recently deceased artist. It’s almost impossible not to read into the material, to search futilely for evidence or clues of what was to come. If you’re looking for that sort of thing, you’ll find it in Feminista. But it’s more important to walk away understanding how important it was to Kennedy to dismantle the myth of the Strong Black Woman. In Sydney Zamora, she exorcises the idea that black women are expected to hide their true needs and desires in order to be accepted professionally or personally. It’s a powerful message hidden in a novel full of designer label names, punchy quips, and scandal. And it’s worth revisiting, particularly this July. It’s National Minority Mental Health Month, and this book explores the reasons why we need this observance in the first place.