A Return to Arms by Sheree L Greer is a book so important it’s not to be missed. While there are deep emotions and love running throughout, it’s not a romance, and that’s one of its greatest strengths.
Toya volunteers with RiseUP!, an activist collective in St. Petersburg, Florida. Inspired by Black Lives Matter, she’s passionate about documenting and sharing community reactions to police shootings of black people, and is part of the call for systemic change. She met her lover, Folami, through RiseUP!, but Folami refuses to reciprocate her love, shutting down anytime Toya tries to talk about her own feelings. For Folami, the struggle is the most important thing, not love, and certainly not her own sexual identity.
After another young unarmed black man is shot and the undercover officer walks free without any consequences, the tension in RiseUP! starts to boil. Toya’s desire for meaningful, peaceful protest runs counter to Kanaan’s call for violent response. And when Toya meets Nina, who manages to balance her activism with her identity as a lesbian, she begins to wonder if she’s been right all along that it’s possible to care about more than one thing while fighting to stop the violence against black bodies.
The story is told in the third person from Toya’s perspective, but Sheree Greer does such a great job of showing us enough from each character that I was never left unsatisfied. The character work is rich and is one of the standout elements of A Return to Arms.
Toya came from money, but left it and her affluent family behind when they turned their backs on her after she came out. She would rather be true to herself than live a lie, and that side of her is what drives her arc. She’s passionate about the people closest to her and the movement, and she is a character I’m unlikely to ever forget.
Folami is not particularly likeable for a lot of the book because we see her through the eyes of someone whose love she isn’t returning. Her desire to be accepted as part of RiseUP! comes ahead of living her truth as a queer woman because that would mean confronting the misogyny and homophobia from some of its most vocal members. Her arc is particularly beautiful, especially as it dovetails with Toya’s.
The Writing Style
A Return to Arms is incredibly well written. The constant level of threat humming in the background ramps up in a few choice scenes, which made my heart pound in terror. The plotting is excellent and the pacing is so well done as to be masterful. Naming real people who have died at the hands of police like Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner kept the fiction grounded in current events.
More than that, it’s an important book because it explicitly examines how the personal is political. The discussion of intersectionality, how oppression can happen along the divides of our gender and the gender of who we love is a crucial part of A Return to Arms. While fighting against racism, Toya is constantly also fighting misogyny and/or homophobia from people she should be able to trust. Her reactions and reflections on this, especially as they compare to Folami and how she handles it, makes for a moving exploration of what can and can’t, or should and shouldn’t, be sacrificed in pursuit of equality.
Many would (rightly) argue that writing about women loving women is a radical act, which is why it’s amazing to see the currently thriving state of lesbian fiction, especially lesbian romance. However, A Return to Arms is an excellent example of a shift that’s happening in lesbian fiction. Lesbian romance might be keeping the lights on at all of the lesfic companies, but lesfic readers are ready for more, and frankly, we need more. This is an incredible book of general fiction that is overtly political, a powerful statement about what is happening to black people in America today.
Everything. Seriously, the character work is strong, the story is incredible, and I cannot adequately state the importance of this book.
A Return to Arms needs to be taught in classrooms, read in homes, and discussed collectively. Everyone should read this book. It is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and I cannot recommend it enough.
“You and your feelings,” Folami said. A slow grin danced across her full lips. She looked down at her hands.
Toya watched her. She seemed nervous, but maybe she was just high. “So you gonna give me grief about my feelings, huh?” she said with a laugh.
Folami nodded, finally returning her gaze to Toya. They stared into each other’s eyes. There was no breeze. There was barely any light; the streetlamp in the alley gave the faintest orange glow to the backyard, and the light coming from the back door spilled down onto the small patch of grass. The scene was peaceful, nice.
“There is no way for me to separate my emotions from my sense of justice. This isn’t business. And it isn’t just political. It’s personal. It’s so very personal. I feel it in here,” Toya said, putting a hand over her heart.
Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781626396814
- Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Sheer L Greer Online
Note: I received a free review copy of this book for review. No money was exchanged for this review. I will always review books as honestly as possible and on occasion I refuse to review books.