In Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, Bert Ashe delivers a book about black hair. The sensitive reader will have a difficult time referring to this cultural treasure as “a book about black hair” and leaving it at that. Like the locks he strives to attain throughout the spiraling progression of the chapters, Ashe’s work is intricate and rich, challenging and ripe with multiple meanings, its sections twisting and weaving as they lock together, the whole becoming more than any one of its parts appear to be at the early stages of development. It is the sort of literary delight borne of the synergy between art and obsession. The author’s obsession here is undisguised: by page one its focus is squarely and candidly on the attainment of dreadlocks, expanding outward to embrace, explore, and wonder over black hair in all forms and manifestations - physical, cultural, political, and intimate - with parallel fervor.
Were the pages borne of this obsession less artfully crafted, the arrangement of the chapters less skillfully syncopated, it would no doubt remain an engaging and worthwhile read. Because the lens of this obsession is so complete and all-consuming, it has the effect of presenting a fresh view on various acts of culture, including: identity, the experience of being an insider vs. an outsider, the connection between attitude and appearance, the importance and unavoidable nature of style in everyday life, among these. Add to these other worthy topics that may more predictably be connected to a book on dreadlocks: the layered significance of black hair, the intersection of style and cultural expectations, and the centuries-long evolution of perceptions on “locks” in America.
This book, although clearly the work of a scholar long-steeped in research on his chosen area of focus, often reads like a joyous love song played by someone who is one part brilliant madman, singularly obsessed with black hair, arranged compellingly among other parts: the cautious, responsible, upstanding citizen, the university professor, the father and husband - all members of the ensemble, navigating a world prone to labels. One of the charms of reading Ashe is his candid approach to the contradictions he embodies.
Those who, as this reader did, read the provocative opening line, “I killed dreadlocks. It was a crime of passion,” as a promise that the following pages will poke, probe, challenge, and play, can know that Ashe does not disappoint. Perhaps spurred by the idea that “apprehending a head of dread forces the viewer to recalibrate what a hairstyle is supposed to be, is supposed to mean;” and obviously inspired by the understanding that a book on this subject “cannot be linear - because dreadlocks are not a linear hairstyle,” Ashe winds and weaves, riffs and improvises. Some chapters are personal narrative, others include essays more historical or anthropological in nature. One or two feature daydreams presented as screenplays. A reader hard-pressed to label the book might place it in the form on an extended lyric essay, calling to mind the robust expansiveness of Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, Michael Eric Dyson and David Shields, - writers who, divergent as they are, heartily embrace, as Shields puts it, “The confusion between field report and self-portrait;… the author-narrators’ use of themselves as personae… the anti-linear, semi-grab-bag-nature of their narratives” and “the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices” (as described in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto).
Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles is about one man’s quest for an elusive head of dreadlocks, yes, and it is also about so much more: the imposed limitations of expected norms, the complex weaving of art, science, and religion in the fabric of culture, the multilayered significance of black hair, the complicated significance of style, the way an individual navigates the development of a cohesive and authentic public persona while accounting for - and embracing - the embedded contradictions within an elaborate personality. Ashe, as author-narrator, in addition to claiming title as the one who “killed dreadlocks,” self-identifies as a loving husband and doting father, a regular parishioner at his local church, as well as a norm-bending, all-black (sometimes) wearing lover of diverse music who cannot tolerate Kenny G, a former DJ and career professor, and - perhaps most endearingly - as a lifetime student of the ways that such a complex personality may perpetually walk the line between the “in” and “out,” exploring and challenging boundary lines purported to separate genres and classify people, subcultures and various aspects of experience. He probes at the intersection where his authentic self confronts the expectations that others - be these family members, strangers, old friends, colleagues, and his own children - have of him. In doing so, he cannot help but challenge a constellation of other expectations, including but certainly not limited to, what it means to wear dreadlocks.
As with the best artistic expression in any genre, what makes it great can hardly be reduced to what it is “about.” Two-thirds into my reading, I found myself suddenly more self-reflective and conscious of my own style, noting that I would have previously placed myself among those whom he aptly describes as (I am paraphrasing here) under the delusion that style matters little except to the most superficial among us. As Ashe reminds, when it comes to our experiences of one another, “Style is everything.” With this is mind, the style of Ashe’s cultural and literary masterpiece is so rich and unique, so defiant of classification, so universal in the human themes it explores - that, for any serious student of the human experience, or of culture - the book becomes a treasure to be enjoyed, replayed, held up to the light and examined at different times of day and in different moods. By whom? I can no more classify the ideal reader of this book that I can pin down the identity of its author into any neat category. Scholars, aesthetes, literature and music lovers, students of style and culture - old, young, and in-between; this book is for anyone who has ever questioned what it means to be pure, to be natural, who has ever wondered of the role of art and how it intersects in human society with science and religion. Its ideal readers may defy classification, but perhaps all are interested in particular ways that humans struggle to represent what is real, with a shared capacity for appreciating the way that this writer’s vigorous embrace of its inherent complexity has a way of reaffirming and reminding each of the wonder and mystery at the heart of any being, experience (and yes, style) worth trying to describe.