When I was going into 10th grade at a new school, I encountered my first summer reading list. I believe I had to choose one novel from maybe 5 or 6 options and have finished reading it before the first day on campus. I chose Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have no idea what the other choices were or what made me pick that novel but I do remember reading it and being fascinated.
Reading as an assignment that turned out to be quite enjoyable. Yay!
As an adult, I’m a committed reader who enjoys the collection, discussion and contemplation of books, books, books. In that I am my mother’s daughter. What’s different, I suppose, is that I get to write about some of that reading and share it publicly. It also feels as if I simply read more than usual: more books, more fiction, more hours. Writing it down is more for my own benefit than anything else and sharing can’t hurt. Maybe there’s something in here for you.
I started off the summer finishing up my sci-fi streak that had me reading three Ursula K. LeGuin novels in a row and continuing with my first N.K. Jemisin title, The Fifth Season. All of this new exploration of science fiction was set in motion by a single podcast episode, Crafting With Ursula: Social Justice and Science Fiction with adrienne maree brown. I knew basically nothing about LeGuin beforehand and afterwards I rushed to the library and checked out The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Bowled over by LeGuin’s versatility, I picked one more, The Eye of the Heron, which charmed me maybe most of all three. Imagine, that’s only the backstory for why I picked up The Fifth Season.
While I knew that Jemisin is a Black woman author who has a remarkable track record in her field. I heard one of her award acceptance speeches (really worth your time!) and began following her on Twitter a few years back. Even so I wasn’t ready to spend time reading a genre I was convinced was not of real interest to me. On recommendation from my favorite librarian, I decided I was ready to tackle my first. And I was not disappointed. While I struggle to recall the details of the story line several weeks after reading, what struck me was Jemisin’s capacity for deeply original world building in really every aspect: societal structures, energy sources, languages, transportation, architecture, natural world – truly everything! Just breathtaking! And following adrienne maree brown’s assertion that social justice organizing and science fiction revolve around creating radically different worlds in the mind’s eye, I was able to see the possibility in a genre I had previously shunned. Yay!
Of course, brown’s Emergent Strategy has been on my radar for a while but this summer I felt more urgently drawn to a pamphlet she wrote in response to intra-movement conflict: We Will Not Cancel Us. She referenced it in the interview with David Naimon and it stuck with me. I’ve often felt uncomfortable with the dynamics of what she terms a “feeding frenzy” in response to a reported harm within community. She uses these pages to inquire what’s going on in those instances; to express her “unthinkable thoughts.” I suppose what I was looking for and also found were the kinds of affirming messages about the complexity and value of living and struggling in community. brown writes,
“I want us to do better. I want to feel like we are responsible for each other’s transformation, not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones.”adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us, p. 74
Partly in parallel I was reading Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir. Now, I cannot tell you what I was expecting but the immediacy of each letter left me shook, rattled and/or moved. There was one passage that I promised myself to hold onto because I need/have needed/will need it:
We never understand how vast we are. We may spend the rest of our lives finding out that we have no borders, no boundaries, pushing into greater sizes, being both terrified and delighted when we discover there’s nothing there to stop us.Akwaeke Emezi, Dear Senthuran, p. 149
I mean, what? and YES! I hesitate to say more but I felt seen while reading, collected, even. Emezi is a young, dynamic and eclectic artist whose insights on what it means to be alive, to be held on the earth in a particular body sang through me. There was a way that their analysis of self and the world laid bare some realities that I know as a middle aged person but had managed to avoid looking at. All in all, I felt strengthened by Dear Senthuran and need to get my own copy soon.
Imagine following that up with The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr., previously known to me as Son of Baldwin on Twitter. In June Jones announced his departure from social media in an open letter, “To Fare Well.” I kept that tab open for days. The letter felt personal and instructional. I continue to refer back to it. My decision to read The Prophets had to do with me trying to catch up with the culture.
Described as a Black queer love story set in the slaveholding South of the 1800s, The Prophets won me over early on with the rich cast of characters. (“Rich” is really inadequate here, forgive me.) Each one was surprisingly real to me. The story, however, and it’s mutifaceted telling are what sent me. The book is so expertly constructed – every detail contributes to the whole in a meaningful way. It’s not light reading but it is extremely tender in many parts. You just have to read it for yourself to see what I mean but wow, the whole package is simply astounding in all that it contains.
Everybody Looking is a novel written in verse and it was my spontaneous YA choice for the summer. Fairly breezy reading about a young woman entering college and figuring out who she is and balancing that against who she believes she needs to be for various others: dad, mom, friends. Objects of Desire is a short story collection that I read in between other things. The stories worked like palate fresheners – crisp, tasty and fleeting. I should also add Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi here. It was such a fast read that I gobbled up in a couple of days. It’s also YA fiction and the prequel to PET which I adored.
On my Kindle, I worked my way through The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change by Michelle MiJung Kim which I now consider social justice essential reading, especially for the US context. Above all, I welcomed Kim’s focus on the importance of context, positionality and tolerating complexity. The messages are clear, her approach is transparent, and understanding of the challenges lucid. In response to the question: “What’s the point of even trying if we’re never going to be anticapitalist?” she writes,
But what if the answers reside within the trying? What if the tension is the point that breaks open the pathways – not to a simple, singular, and reductive solution but to multilayered, collective, and complex solutioning toward possibilities?Michelle MiJung Kim, The Wake Up, ch. 4
I also added Patriarchy Blues to my e-reader stack. Authored by Frederick Joseph, this book surprised me with it’s nearly mixed-media approach to looking at patriarchy. Joseph uses personal anecdotes, poetry and essays to illustrate all the ways that we are constrained not solely by patriarchy but all the other systems of oppression that intersect with it and/or rely on its support. There are some choice insights that again remind us of the multiple roads we can travel towards social justice.
Near the end of the summer I took the opportunity to reread Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford. I’m glad I did that because the second time around I got to think more about the writing and what it is that draws me to Ford’s voice. The openness, yes, and perhaps more than just openness, there’s a delicacy and care in the choices she makes in telling us about her family. I suppose I appreciated the struggle it took to get the book done; letting that part also surface felt meaningful for me. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Almost done… The last book I finished is the one I started early on and put aside. Recommended by a dear friend, I wanted to find its charm but it took a minute. The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is like nothing I’d ever read before. A novel, but in oral history form. And it’s a debut by Dawnie Walton. At the end of the summer, once traveling was done and we were back to household lounging, I guess I was ready for this multiperspective story to claim some real estate in my brain. Once I got into the characters and the larger context I was absolutely fascinated by the complexity with such a careful, light touch. Nothing is overdone. Each voice maintains a radical authenticity that strikes me a remarkable achievement. Again, a wonderful revelation of what young authors are bringing into the world already.
Last book on my nightstand is a memoir I picked up at my local bookstore. While I have know the name Ai Wei Wei, I didn’t know much about his art or the source of his prominence. It’s interesting to read his telling of his parents’ histories and recognize the expanse of my own ignorance of Chinese history specifically and of Asian history more generally. I suspect I will be working on this read for a while. It’s very personal, real and for me, uniquely instructional. I’m looking forward to the ways this book will stretch me into new areas on interest and investigation.
This post turned out to be way longer than I anticipated. But that’s ok. It’s only words and time and a record of significant contributions. Once in a while it’s good to look back and remember where we got stuff: ideas, quotes, questions, insights. My reading life keeps me open and curious. That is actually a gift for the ages, friends. Truly.
One thought on “Summer Reading”
You are reading N.K. Jemisin, I am so excited! She is mind-blowingly good and single-handedly proves why science fiction and fantasy can be the best social investigation and commentary of any literary genre, while also telling the best stories. (She was also hugely influenced by Octavia Butler, who I repeatedly return to as one of the best science fiction authors the U.S. ever had.)