Rashod Ollison, an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist, is also a gifted memoirist. In "Soul Serenade," Ollison tells of how his obsession with soul music sustained him through the heartbreaking hardships of growing up poor, black and gay in rural Arkansas in the 1970s and '80s.
Ollison uses the authentic language of home, profane and poetic, to vividly describe a childhood lived in a state of impermanence. Constant financial uncertainty has his family continuously moving between the projects and short-term rentals with intermittent stays on the floors of friends' homes. He lives in no place long enough to feel secure. Schools and teachers change as rapidly as neighborhood allegiances.
His mother is resilient, tough and hardworking, but emotionally armored. Any internal warmth seems to have died when she was only 7 and a stray bullet fired by her own mother killed the little sister she was holding in her lap.
The men of Rashod's childhood are only as present as "holograms." His father is a Vietnam vet who returned from that war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and addicted to heroin, a walking time bomb. When he deserts his family, all he bequeaths to young Rashod — besides a romanticized picture of a father who took him to bars and into the homes of his mistresses — are his record collection and a love for soul music. But that proves enough for the boy to launch his own journey toward manhood.
Rashod writes beautifully about certain welcoming openings in the music that allowed him to crawl inside and "lay his burdens down." In a world of violence, poverty and rejection, that music becomes his only healing respite. Stevie Wonder takes him in during his mother's cancer. Aretha Franklin instructs him on strength and self-respect. Chaka Khan teaches him the defiance of the unloved. Michael Jackson creates a magical space for hope. Al Green tells him it's fine to be a sensitive man.
Besides the music, it's the women of his world whom Rashod most brings to life in this memoir. He introduces us to the strutting "project divas" and tyrannical "kitchen queens" and those hardened "blues women" who are really only frightened girls rushed into womanhood. And thankfully there are those women who ultimately see the boy's gift, such as a teacher who tells him he has a special light inside. "Don't you let anybody take it and don't you hide it, either," she tells him, and then gives him a book by Langston Hughes that shows the boy there is a place in the world for lights such as his.
Jonathan Odell is a native Mississippian who has made Minneapolis his home. His novels include "The Healing" and "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League."