Summer Reading

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.

4 book covers arranged in 2 X 2 layout: We Will Not Cancel Us by adrienne maree brown, The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin, The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr.; Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi.

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.

Book covers: EveryBody Looking by Candice Iloh, Painting of young black woman with long braids against background of brightly colored uneven rectangle shapes. Objects of Desire, Clare Sestanovich. Shows painting of several whole peaches and plums with a few cut pieces in between against a dark blue background.

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.

2 book covers: The final Revival of Opal and Nev, white bold letters against red background, with black shadow of guitar in center with side of a black woman's face in guitar. AiWeiWei, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. White bold letters against background of smaller images of art sculpture models of various colors.

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.

On Reading “Death Is Hard Work” By Khaled Khalifa

I love our school libraries. I try to be a frequent flyer in both the elementary and secondary collections. They never disappoint. While coping with the brief disappointment at discovering that Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, was checked out (bittersweet, because also, Yay! someone else is enjoying excellent fiction!), I browsed the shelf for reasonable alternatives. In that case, I tend to select based on how the title lands and do a quick check of the cover dynamics. That’s how Khaled Khalifa‘s novel, Death Is Hard Work, ended up in my hands.

Cover of Death Is Hard Work (white background with Black lettering, pencil detail drawing of minibus where bullet holes on a wall are where tires should be.)

Originally published in Arabic in 2016, Death Is Hard Work relates the struggle of three estranged siblings transporting their father’s corpse through war-torn Syria from Damascus to the father’s birth home of Anabiya. It is Abdel Latif’s dying wish and his second son, Bolbol feels obligated to carry it out with the help of his sister and older brother, Fatima and Hussein. What Khalifa weaves together are relationship strands that run through the past of these family members and shows how these play out in their at once terrifying and matter-of-fact commitment. On a trip that would have taken a few hours under pre-war circumstances, the family requires over three days to navigate checkpoints and territories of various combatant factions.

I was a little worried at the outset because my knowledge of the conflict is Syria is abominable. My ignorance defines my relationship to the region. I need to be honest about that. Through these richly portrayed characters, Khalifa leads the reader into a Syrian society of lower middle class families where a full range of human possibilities are on display. Bolbol, the selectively dutiful son of small time revolutionary, Abdel Latif, serves as the primary narrator. Through him we learn the histories and heartbreaks of his father and siblings and their further relations. Bolbol is a wonderfully complex and somewhat tragic character. We get the feeling that he’s simply not cut out to ever, ever get what he really wants. Only in the last third of the book do we learn that our narrator’s real name is Nabil rather than Bolbol, a childhood nickname he gave up trying to correct.

On many levels, Khalifa writes about longing and disappointment; the constant struggle to make do with dream remnants in the midst of sour realities. The metaphor that appears several times is that of a bouquet floating down a river.

“Discovering love is like seeing a bouquet floating down a river. You have to catch it at the right time, or the river will sweep it away: it won’t wait for long. You have only a few intense, mad moments to give voice to your profound desires.” (p. 65)

Later when Abdel Latif describes his late stage marriage to an early sweetheart, Nevine, the floating bouquet makes another appearance:

“But his father surprised him when he added the following night that every door should be thrown open to love, that love could sweep away the past all at once, which had helped cleanse his being and strip away the withered branches that would never put out leaves again. It was agonizing, of course, to slice off your awful past and throw it away, but it was necessary if you were to catch the bouquet of roses floating down the river and carry it safely to the other side…” (p. 71)

Bolbol offers us insight into everyone’s peculiar form of suffering, from his own cage of fears to his brother’s unrelenting anger and his sister’s wounded pride – these all against a backdrop of a nation descending into the civil war through which the protagonists end up traveling. Of course, while transporting a rotting corpse across a landscape where the primary distinctions are degrees of physical devastation, death is constant companion. And, as the title makes clear, death is and becomes hard work. (Translated literally, the title would be Death Is Hard Labour)

Precisely Khalifa’s handling of death – the grossness of decay, the numbness that develops by constantly being confronted by it – demonstrates the author’s remarkable craft and sensitivity. The book has its share of humor. I was struck by this crisply related image:

“The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue-tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers or checkpoints.” (p. 127)

Rather than build our sympathies with a particular faction of the conflict, through Bolbol’s desperate attempt to survive and experience a modicum of respect, we are confronted with a kind of futility. At the final checkpoint run by an extremist group, Bolbol is arrested and his siblings are allowed to proceed. Unable to pass a test demonstrating sufficient command of Islam, he is held for religious re-education. It’s here that he contemplates the emptiness of existing in constant fear:

“Bobol reflected that when the walls of fear around you crumble, there’s only a strange emptiness inside. Nothing can fill it but a new type of fear, perhaps. You don’t know what to call it, but it’s still fear, no different in flavor, really than the old type. It makes you feel like you’re the only one afraid in a tide of humanity that regards dying as the ultimate solution to the enigma of living … He was convinced this was his own personal problem, not the problem of humanity as a whole: each human losing themselves, then finding themselves again by banding together with the other humans who seemed to most resemble themselves, or else transforming themselves in order to resemble those groups . . . all drowning in emptiness.” (p.174)

I had no idea what to expect when I pulled this book off the shelf. Death Is Hard Work caught me unawares. It has, as a reading adventure, convinced me again that fiction matters. Invented stories allow authors to tell us truths we need to hear without exactly designating which ones are ours to believe. How to write about the callous inhumanity of war while bearing witness to the range of human behavior that makes war not only possible, but commonplace? Khlalifa’s answer seems to be: You make space for regular degular people to reveal their own stories of survival. As outsiders looking in we are forced to acknowledge that folks have so much more going on in their hearts and minds than living to see another day, precisely when no next day is guaranteed.

Fiction reading is the art of listening to characters as they are, not as we suppose they ought to be. That has been my lesson here. Read Death Is Hard Work. Savor its characters, its humor, its craft, and its capacity to teach us what we think we mean by “life and death.”

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, Faber and Faber, 2019.

image by S. Spelic

Get Ready For PET

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I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.

Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is   populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.

And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.

What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually.  Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:

If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…

…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet.  p. 71

or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13

I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary.  This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.

And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?

As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back.  It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.  p. 140

Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.

I also tweeted about it here. This thread by Sarah Waites also sings its praises.

15 titles and not nearly enough time

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline arrived in the mail today. I already read the library copy and decided I needed to have my own copy to underline and reread at will. It was that spectacular.

In the same shipment, my second copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo also arrived. This will be my loaner, the one I allow friends to borrow and receive enlightenment. That perhaps they will finally see what I see. But first I have to get my original underlined copy back.

On my nightstand I have a ridiculous stack of books from which I just returned Dear Martin by Nic Stone to the library, while Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Ayedemi rests on top, bookmark about a third of the way through. I’ve been reading more and more young adult fiction – to mix things up but also to rekindle a connection to fiction I thought was lost. Reading young characters who are brave, resilient, hopeful and a strange kind of wise helps me. I sleep better after surviving their travails and recovering their losses.

That pile has been accumulating for a while where a thick sturdy volume of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning patiently awaits my return. But it’s certainly not alone. Cathy Davidsons, The New Education is waiting its turn to be continued and as is Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. Robin Kimmerer holds two spots in the pile with Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, both of which offer me green space in the form of words and sentences. And balanced and open near the top is some theory and practical wisdom for my teaching: What If All the Kids Are White? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey. Anti-Bias teaching with young students. I used to think my presence was enough – as that one, quite possibly the only black teacher a child may have in their school career to have a crucial impact. And it may be the case but it seems unlikely. I need to help teach anti-bias along with the rest of my colleagues. So I have more reading to do. Sandwiched somewhere in that pile is also my own skinny volume of poems in German that I published in February this year, Die Sprachbürgerschaft.

Meanwhile I have a stash of books I have read and reshelved but have not yet had a chance to really share or discuss; among them, Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. This was a book that astonished and saddened me. Eubanks is a gifted reporter who conveys both the human tragedy at hand but also the faulty logic of those who would have us believe that more tech rather than less will benefit the greater good, when actually profit the greedier investor appears the more likely scenario. As the poor and vulnerable are subject to greater surveillance, scrutiny and deeper inequalities through algorithmic sorting, programming and predictions, the already weakened safety nets are at risk of being phased out or becoming downright inaccessible. I need to re-read and finally put more thoughts together on it.

Of course, I’ve also read a bunch of articles and blog posts that have also helped me want to do and be better. Jess L. wrote this blog post “Someone, Somewhere,” about LGBTQ safety for students in schools and I immediately shared it with counselors and administrators in my school. While I read Troublemakers with the #ClearTheAir group on Twitter, this podcast interview with author Carla Shalaby felt helpful in the aftermath of putting thoughts into practice.

Of course there are so many more good and necessary things to read. These are my snapshots today.img_20180806_122616