I’ll admit it: I didn’t expect much when I picked up War of the Bloods in my Veins by Dashaun “Jiwe” Morris. I received the book free at SPI, and it was one of my last NYC books I had yet to read. I remember receiving it from an over-enthusiastic editor, who was thrilled about her new release, convinced it was the most powerful book she had read this year.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the world of editor-hype. Don’t put too much faith in it, because their income depends on how well their book sells at Barnes & Noble. However, it’s worth a listen, considering THIS book—out of the millions of unsolicited manuscripts sent to NY every year—was picked to be published. This, my friends, is a great achievement. So OK, enthusiastic editor: show me what you got. And remember, I’m not being paid to advertise your wares.
Now, I don’t want to offend anyone, but I wasn’t expecting much because the whole “former-gang-member-cleans-up-his-life” genre doesn’t interest me much. It’s not that I don’t care about social causes, or the plight of the inner city poor, but the violence of gang life disturbs me on a level that preempts my sympathy. I know their excuses: the violence, drugs and guns are “part of the street.” Gang life is the only way to survive. It’s the only place these young men find family, acceptance and friends. My heart is known to bleed profusely for the down-and-out, but these arguments disgust me. The never-ending circle of violence inherent in gang life—that gang shot our brother, we shot one of theirs, now they’re back to shoot at us again—is absurd. Why do these young men choose a lifestyle that is—in the words of Dashaun Morris—suicidal? It can only lead to heartbreak and death, and so why does it flourish?
Of course, these are merely my white-girl, surburban, sheltered biases; I’m very aware my experiences of “gang life” have been limited or null, and I’ve been fortunate to avoid such a lifestyle. Morris gave me some insight into this world, but it too was limited by its own shortcomings.
Again with the biases: I’m pretty damn snobby when it comes to good writing. Books are nothing if they’re not written well, which is why I lean more toward literary fiction rather than mysteries, thrillers or romance novels. And so, I won’t deny that Morris’s writing drove me crazy. He said he wrote most of the book while serving a six-month jail sentence, and I’m sure his editors kept much of it the same to “preserve his voice.” Whatever. While I give Morris immense credit for turning his life around and writing this book, I’m not going to lie to avoid hurting his feelings. The pacing was off, the grammar atrocious, and basic sentence construction went out the window. You can call me a snob, but the writing often distracted me from Morris’s story and invited me to stop reading at every page.
However, I stuck it out and I’m glad I did. Though Morris could afford some writing instruction, he was nothing but honest. Minus that lovely narrative flow, it’s clear Morris is pouring his heart onto the page, and telling the truth so far as he knows it. He holds nothing back. He doesn’t exactly answer my qualms about why the urban poor enter gang life, but I don’t think he understands either—and I don’t blame him for that. Gang life, Morris revealed to me, is a complicated world where morals, right/wrong and familial obligations are subsumed by the fog of being poor, black and unwanted on our city streets. Morris attributes his entrance into gang life by his unsatisfactory family life, claiming the gang provided a support system he lacked at home. I’m sure this is true, and I hope Morris’s experience serves as an example of what has to change in this community if anything is to get better.
What suprised me most was how much I ended up liking Dashaun Morris by the end of the book. He seems like a genuinely good man, and I hope his attempts to change have gone well. I respect his honesty, and even his decency. Of course, he’s responsible for murdering others—he doesn’t hide that fact. But throughout, he is constantly questioning his actions and that of his fellow gang members. He even realizes his lifestyle is suicidal. However, once you’re in so far—and there’s little for you elsewhere in the world—there’s little you can do but keep on the same path until you eventually wind up with a bullet in your back. However, awareness such as Morris has of his situation is rare. He’s definitetly one of the lucky ones.