Cack-Handed, by Gina Yashere | Review of the comedian's memoir
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Cack-Handed, by Gina Yashere

Review of the comedian's memoir

I’m not sure Cack-Handed is the perfect title for Gina Yashere’s memoirs. Although a reference to her left-handedness, it also suggests a clumsy ineptitude – but what actually comes through, especially when it comes to her comedy years, is ambition; a determination - sometimes a pig-headed one - to succeed, especially when she was told ‘no’. 

It’s an attitude that’s served her well… taking her from being the child of a single mum in Tower Hamlets, London’s most deprived borough, to the upper echelons of American comedy, a TV regular and co-creator of the sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola with the genre’s King Midas, Chuck Lorre.

Her journey, at least in its early stages, was, admittedly, a bit haphazard - but which comic’s isn’t? Yashere was a telecoms, and then lift, engineer with a passion for clubbing before falling into - and in love with - stand-up.

It’s her well-evoked earliest years which pull you into her story, though, built loosely around a family legend that considers her the resurrection of her murdered Nigerian grandmother, Patience, destined to fulfil a prophecy that she would ‘speak perfect English, live unfettered by men or children, work a man’a job and travel the world as a free spirit’.

Early life in East London was challenging, and dominated by two adults. First is her mother, who takes the stereotypical strict African parent to extremes: her overprotective nature slipping into cruelty when she wouldn’t let young Gina hang out with friends. While mum is portrayed as a villain, Yashere also acknowledges the difficulty of her life, far from home and trying to raise her kids right while fending financially for herself.

Mum also provides many of the funniest lines in the book: the often bonkers Nigerian proverbs that Yashere uses for chapter headings, which always contain a nugget of folk wisdom, amusingly phrased.

If her mum was cruel for good intentions, no such latitude can be given to the ‘Step-bastard’ who entered the Yasheres’ lives… he’s portrayed as a weak, spiteful bully who gets his kicks from imposing his power on children, and worse.

Outside the house, Yashere experiences racism, whether from the white youths on the estate or the Caribbeans who’ve been indoctrinated to hate their African brothers. Empire and slavery casts a long shadow over the Yasheres  (actually Iyasere is the real family name) and the comic skilfully raises some Home Truths about colonialism that has so defined history.

Knowledge of this past and seeking a sense of an identity drew her into the Nation of Islam for a while, although she quickly drifted away again. She didn’t feel she’d returned to her spiritual home during trips to Nigeria, either.

More direct racism would follow through her life. When she started as a lift engineer with Otis the clearly peeved white engineer she was paired with huffed: ‘I was promised a mate instead I get some sort of fucking diversity experiment’. No wonder it was a world she wanted to leave, despite - or possible because of - being the company’s totem of diversity.

After coming to comedy in the mid-1990s she encountered a different racism, feeling herself the victim of a ‘one on, one out’ mentality that restricted the best of the already limited opportunities to only one famous black comic at a time… and Lenny Henry had that sewn up.

Live, she progressed quickly through both the black and the white circuits, earning a good wage in the first and broadening her craft in the second. She’s not shy about the bitching and backbiting she experienced on the circuit (and there’s some fun to be had guessing the comics she’s talking about) and why her ambition took her to America when she hit the glass ceiling here.

The book ends with her making the finals of the NBC reality show Last Comic Standing, which opened more doors than an advent calendar. That’s a point that leaves plenty of room for a style sequel should the publishers want one.

By this point, the reader has  come to understand Yashere’s journey, thanks to the the variously entertaining, troubling, stories from her life, both professionally and personally, that she tells so engagingly and with more heart that comes through in her often hard-edged stand-up.

• Cack-Handed by Gina Yashere is also available from Amazon.

Published: 29 Jul 2021

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