Review: Cora’s Kitchen Shines a Light on Women’s Hopes and Dreams During the Harlem Renaissance

A Chicago flag with three out of four stars.
A solid debut.

Cora James lives in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. She works in the Harlem Library, rubbing shoulders with the best and the brightest Black writers in New York City. She’s married to a bassist whose music helps form the beat of the era. But Cora herself is trapped, her hopes and dreams submerged beneath layers of societal and familial expectations. Dreams are rising around her, and excitement is in the air, but what does it mean for a working mother of two?

Cora’s Kitchen, the first novel by former North Central College professor and Naperville denizen Kimberly Garrett Brown, brings women’s voices, experiences, and aspirations into stark relief against the often male-dominated world of the Harlem Renaissance. Cora’s world might be alight with life, pulsing with vitality and voices and people striving to be heard, yet she’s still trapped, held back by racism and sexism.

Author Kimberly Garrett Brown

Through her tight focus on one woman’s voice—and her occasional letters from a fictionalized Langston Hughes—Brown illuminates not only Cora James but her world and, beyond her world, the worlds inhabited by women more generally. Cora speaks directly to us, her first-person voice emerging from dated diary entries, short stories, and letters to Hughes, whose occasional letters to Cora are the only times a voice comes to us without Cora’s mediation. At one point Cora comments, “Women probably jibber-jabber so much because men don’t give them room to think, much less talk.” We are held so tightly in Cora’s life—and in her head, where we see building all the things she cannot say—that her words hit especially hard.

While Cora’s husband Earl is out playing clubs at night, Cora is navigating a world of women, forever constrained by men—and by race. Like so many other women, she must manage domestic worlds, whether she wants to or not. Her husband doesn’t exactly help, either with the kids (he prefers, Cora notes at one point in the novel, when they don’t intrude on his real life) or with the laundry. The new washing machine in the basement saves Cora time and costs 25¢ a load, and Earl isn’t happy about it: “Earl says we should be saving those quarters, but he isn’t the one rubbing the clothes on that washboard until his fingers are raw.” The basement is pretty creepy—aren’t all rental basements?—but, as Cora tells us, the machine “saves a lot of time”—and, I’d assume, also her fingers.

She also is in charge of managing familial relationships. When she subs for her cousin, who must recover after yet another beating by her feckless, abusive husband, Cora is thrust into waters she’s never quite tested. Here, she meets a bored, desperate white woman, Eleanor, who is in her own way as desperate as Cora herself. It is here, in Cora’s relationship with Eleanor and in Eleanor’s relationships with Cora and other women, that we will begin to see Cora’s belief in women sticking together as it takes full form, a radical philosophy in a time of surging activism.

Cora’s Kitchen is deceptively domestic. Here, Cora moves from home to home, and from kitchen to kitchen. Like so many working mothers before and after her, she must figure out how to keep the kids fed and the laundry washed and the clothes ironed and everything running as smoothly as possible, but it comes at the cost of losing herself and her ambitions. Writing of meeting her husband, she notes that they were going to “live beyond the conventions of typical Negro life”: Earl would be a musician, and Cora a writer. But those turned out to be pipe dreams, as “reality settled in after Junior was born. One of us had to get a dependable job. The library hardly felt like a concession on my part.”

Brown deftly layers Cora’s Kitchen, allowing Cora worlds of her own even as she is constrained by everyone from her husband to the structural racism and sexism facing her in the world outside her door. (And inside, too, for that matter.) There are rare discordant moments—as a librarian I find it hard to believe Cora would not have found interest among her patrons, since, let’s face it, people might be obnoxious or weird or pushy but they’re always interesting. But, overall, Cora James is an engaging, companionable narrator, one for whom readers will root—and many of us will recognize her struggles, and hope for her triumph the more.

Cora's Kitchen is available at most booksellers and through the Inanna Publishing website.

Picture of the author
Caitlin Archer-Helke