Genre: Memoir, Humour
Ideal Age Range: 14+
This funny and bracing memoir has very little to do with unicorns on a literal level. On the other hand, maybe it is, as the title suggests, all about unicorns.
The unicorn is in the memoir’s opening anecdote, where young Tiffany is cursed with a spiky wart on her forehead. She is desperate to transform the attention she gets from her classmates from derision to awe, to go from being Dirty Ass Unicorn to the Last Black Unicorn (4).
Haddish’s description of a life episode as a “weird fairy-tale horror story” seems to apply to her experiences generally (45). Like a fairy tale heroine, Haddish is able to spin straw (or dung) into gold. As a teen barely able to read but with a powerful memory, Haddish ends up in AP classes; an attempt to impress a boy ends up with her first winning a Shakespeare monologue competition and Bar Mitzvah entertainment; when her joking goes awry in class, she is given the choice between therapy and comedy camp. Just so, the memoir offsets this string of successes with her mother’s mental illness, the horror of foster care, the way these early experiences result in a string of abusive personal relationships, the politics of managing relationships in comedy.
Fairy tales in their original forms are often violent and heroes often encounter random, seemingly unpleasant events. Remember when Rapunzel is thrown out of her tower for getting knocked up and then has twins on her own in the wilderness? Or when the frog turns into a prince after the princess throws him against a wall for sneaking into her room? Or when Little Red Riding Hood is forced into a strip tease and then tells the wolf she needs to take a poop in order to escape? No? Well, get thee to the 1812 version of the Grimm’s fairy tales. The point is that original fairy tales are often also horror stories. Their narrative tension works on how heroes and heroines survive and succeed in terrible circumstances that are often the result individual cruelty enabled by systematic societal injustice.
Heroes and heroines of fairy tales often don’t succeed because they are “good” but because 1) they find ways to get help and 2) they are clever and crafty. Kevin Hart and Jada Pinkett Smith appear like fairy godmothers, reminding us that success emerges not from individual striving alone, but from mentorship, friendship, and investment in human relationships. Alongside Haddish’s recognition of the generosity of others, she’s gleeful in describing her ability to avenge herself both in wickedly inventive schemes to get back at terrible ex-boyfriends and by being the better person to colleagues who underestimate her. In fairy tales, happily-ever-after indicates stasis, a lack of movement. But Haddish reveals how she has to act like she’s got her happy ending to make sure her opportunities keep coming.
But if the victories of fairy tale heroes and heroines are satisfying, but they are also implicitly rare. The bones of unsuccessful princes are woven through the briars of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The Black Unicorn of Haddish’s title is also the “Last,” which is significantly less optimistic than the “First” Black Unicorn or even “A” Black Unicorn among many. So…If unicorns are rare, extraordinary creatures, are we to read Haddish as exceptional both because of her talent and ambition, or because she succeeds despite massive challenges? Both?
Haddish considers how the desire for being “wanted,” to be protected and wanted underlie her love of performance. Performance and comedy allow her to be “something that other people wanted me to be” (274). When no unicorn exists, Haddish makes herself one.
Oh, and unicorns do pop up twice. Read it to find out where!
Buy The Last Black Unicorn here: https://www.amazon.com/Last-Black-Unicorn-Tiffany-Haddish/dp/1501181823
One thought on “Not-Quite-Unicorn Book Review: The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish. New York: Gallery Books, 2017.”
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