Crystelle Mourning

A Novel

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About The Book

This profound and intense debut novel is the story of a young African American woman from West Philadelphia who finds her path to a bright future in gentrified Brooklyn, New York, blocked when she can't let go of the love she lost.

Crystelle has a well-employed fiancé and a life in New York City that most young professionals would envy. She has come a long way from skipping rope on the cracked sidewalks of the rough Philadelphia neighborhood where she was raised by a loving mother and grandfather. She experienced good times and bad in equal measure in a community where people worked, played, and sometimes fought hard too. She didn't leave the past behind her though. A ghost from those West Philly days haunts her, a spirit whose presence in her dreams is as welcome as it is unsettling. That spirit is Jimmie, her high school sweetheart -- the one who she watched get gunned down one hot, unforgettable night all those years ago.

Unnerved by her dreams of Jimmie and the suspicion that she may be pregnant, Crystelle takes a train back to her old neighborhood to reconnect with friends and family. There, with the help of Jimmie's mother -- a woman who Crystelle loves like family and who makes a prison visit to the young man who murdered her son -- Crystelle comes to grips with the memory that haunts her and learns the power of forgiveness and the need to move on.

With its deeply resonant depictions of urban African American life and the cultural forces that challenge and sustain their communities, Crystelle Mourning is a triumphant, lyrical beginning to a bright new talent in fiction.

Reading Group Guide

SUMMARY
Crystelle has a seemingly great life and a bright future. She lives in gentrified Brooklyn with a well-employed fiancée; who wants to make her his wife, and she suspects she might be pregnant. The prospect of becoming a mother and wife, however, along with her recurring dreams of her murdered childhood sweetheart, send her emotions over the edge, and she heads back to her old inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood to face her past.
READING GROUP DISCUSSION
1. The prologue has a second-person narrator, yet the rest of the book has a third-person omniscient narrator. Why does the author employ a different point of view in the opening pages? Did this affect your involvement in the story?
2. Dreams dominate this story, and a ghost plays a major role. What literary techniques are used to differentiate between dream states and reality, living characters and Jimmie's ghost? Why is Crystelle's spirit such an overwhelming aspect of her characterization?
3. The following appears on page 11: " 'Remember this' her disconnected self said out loud in her head. 'Life feasts on death.' " What does Crystelle mean by this? Would she say this at the end of the novel?
4. On page 53, Crystelle talks about the moths bumping into the light. Who do you think, besides the moths, Crystelle is referring to when she theorizes about why it happens?
5. How do you interpret the actions and dialogue of the homeless woman ("the crazy disco lady," page 96) in chapter four? Has the author included this character for symbolic or allegorical purposes?
6. What are Crystelle's true feelings for Hamp? Does she love him or is he simply a distraction from memories of Jimmie? Do their different backgrounds affect their relationship?
7. When Shelley became pregnant during college, her boyfriend stood by her and accepted his duties as the father. Consider the male characters -- even those that are briefly mentioned -- in this novel. On the whole, are men portrayed as reliable figures?
8. A shocking secret is exposed when Granddaddy and Aunt Brenda discover Opal's role in Crystelle's abortion. How surprised were you to learn about this event subsequent to Jimmie's murder? Are Opal's actions forgivable?
9. What was your reaction to the poems, songs, and dialogue included before the prologue and at the beginning of several chapters (pages 126, 148, 162)? What function do they serve in relation to each subsequent chapter and the story as a whole?
10. Is there any irony in Crystelle's nickname, "Crystelle Clear"? By the conclusion of the novel, is Crystelle "clear"?
11. Among family, friends, and lovers, Crystelle has many significant relationships -- and in a way, these relationships drive the plot of the book. Who do you think she relies upon the most and for what? Discuss her relationships with the following characters and what emotional impact each has on Crystelle: Granddaddy, Opal, Aunt Brenda, Jimmie, Hamp, and Shelley.
TIPS TO ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Poetry appears in several places throughout Crystelle Mourning. Have each member of your book club write his or her own poem to share. Try to mimic Eisa Ulen's poetic style.
2. Crystelle's time spent with her mother and granddaddy or Aunt Brenda often involves sharing a home-cooked meal. Before your book club meeting, ask each member to prepare a dish for a potluck dinner and enjoy the meal as you discuss Crystelle Mourning. Make sure it's Philadelphia-related! Here are some for Philadelphia cheesecake: http://www.cooks.com/rec/search/0,10,philadelphia_cheesecake,FF.html
3. Crystelle helps Jimmie's mother sort through and throw away his old things, and in the process, they begin to heal. While this may be an especially emotional and difficult task, sifting through his everyday possessions also reminds them of a happiness once shared. In that positive spirit of sorting through the past, find something old of yours or something that belonged to a loved one that recalls a fond memory. Bring the item to your book club meeting and share your memory with the group.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Eisa Nefertari Ulen teaches English at Hunter College in New York City, and her essays have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, and CreativeNonfiction.org. She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master's degree from Columbia University. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 1, 2006)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416538004

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Raves and Reviews

"With its languid pacing and rhythmic voice, Eisa Nefertari Ulen's novel at times feels like an elongated spoken-word poem....Ulen manages to pull it off with her nuanced depictions of Black life and her obvious love for her characters as they strive to create new realities out of the heartbreaking events of the past."

-- The Washington Post

"Ulen wisely takes her time revealing Crystelle's pain, creating an authentic quality to her story. You feel for Crystelle...even as you're urging her to move forward and leave the past behind."

-- Essence

"A rhythmic flow of words and descriptive detail."

-- Uptown magazine

"Eisa is a careful writer who strives to craft character, scene, and ambiguity. Her voice has the beauty and economy of poetry."

-- Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Rails Under My Back

"Affirms faith in the enduring power of young love. Welcome Eisa Ulen."

-- Elizabeth Nunez, author of Prospero's Daughter and Bruised Hibiscus

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