Like a lot of us , I ended up with some unexpected reading time on my hands this year. Every year I make an effort to read authors from a wide range of backgrounds and historical time periods, but this year, when racial justice is on the minds of so many people, it seemed especially pertinent to read authors whose experiences differ from mine. Here are a few of the books that I know I will keep thinking about for years to come.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
I was first exposed to James Baldwin in a college intro to literature course. His short story “Sonny’s Blues” made me cry my eyes out. Since then, I’ve read many of his short stories and essays. This was the first year I’ve read his novels.
If Beale Street Could Talk is about a young couple named Tisha and Fonny who are separated when Fonny is arrested of a rape he didn’t commit. It is easy to see why James Baldwin is one of the most famous black writers in American letters. He excels are portraying the tender love between the two main characters. Tisha’s struggle to free Fonny from prison makes this an important book about racial justice.
The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
So often in America, whether we are for or against a war, we focus on how it is affecting our country and our soldiers. We forget about the people who already live there. This collection of short stories represents an Iraqi perspective on the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent unrest. But these stories go beyond just representing an unheard perspective. They are dark, subversive and deeply mythic, all of which is so hard to find in Western literature today.
My favorite story, “An Army Newspaper,” was about an editor who passes off short stories from a dead soldier as his own. After he obtains wealth and critical acclaim, he receives more stories in the mail, all undoubtedly written by the same author and all equally beautiful. The editor is terrified his fraud will be discovered. He hides these new stories. But they keep coming, and coming. His house overflows with them. He has to rent a warehouse to hold them all. And they keep coming.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
Despite the title, this is not a how-to book, but rather a series of personal essays by Asian American novelist Alexander Chee. My favorite essay in this collection was “The Curse,” which is about Chee’s experience as a foreign exchange student in Mexico. While staying with a wealthy family, Chee becomes fluent in Spanish and begins to wonder if he could be more at home in this new land than in America, where he was always treated as an outsider. Near the end of the summer, the son in his home-stay family encourages him to pass himself off as a native Mexican, noting that his racially-ambiguous looks will make it easy. In the process, Chee learns something about himself.
Weep, Not Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Nigerian writer who documented the end of colonialism and the birth of the new nation. Weep Not, Child, his first novel, is written in bold, broad strokes. Though it takes place during a chaotic period of violence and political upheaval, the story focuses on two star-crossed lovers who are trying to reaffirm their humanity in the face of inhuman forces.
Several years ago, I did some research on this period of Nigerian history. If it wasn’t for that, I’m not sure that I would have been able to follow the political drama that occupies the background of this novel. This is a beautiful story though, but you might want to brush up on the Mau Mau on Wikipedia before you read it.
The Woman In the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
In this post-war Japanese novel, a school teacher and hobby entomologist visits a small seaside village on a bug hunting excursion. When he first walks through the town, he thinks little about the houses deep inside wells of sand. But when he misses his bus and has to stay with a mysterious woman, he learns there is more going on in this quaint little town than first meets the eye.
This book terrified me from beginning to end. The distant voice of the narrator made me feel alienated but also encouraged me to think about the existential themes of the book in a larger context. The word “kafkaesque” gets thrown around a lot in literary blurbs, but this is one of the few cases where it is truly deserved.
Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen
This is a memoir about gun violence by Toni Jensen, a woman with Indigenous and European heritage. Though the book has some faults, it is at its best when Jensen shares her personal experiences of domestic abuse and racism. While in graduate school, she had classmates who ignorantly believed that all Native American writers were the same. My favorite essay in the book was “Ghost Logic,” where she tells the story of her first love. As a high school student, she sought shelter from her abusive father by staying with her boyfriend’s family in the house they shared with a jealous ghost. Her boyfriend was a sweet young man, but as their relationship developed she learned that he had serious mental health problems that threatened his life.
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