In times of stress, I turn to reading. I turn to it to learn and to escape. Given the results of the recent election, my thoughts are all over the place. Everything feels chaotic and wrong and reading is my happy place. I desperately just want to curl up on my couch with a big, fat, juicy book and sink reading teeth into it. But again, right now, I feel more than ever, my reading needs to be purposeful.
Over the last year or so, I found myself DNFing (did not finish) a number of books. I generally prefer literary fiction and two factors contributed to the abandonment of so many books. First, I am raising my first child and last year my attention span was pretty depleted. Second, it seemed like too many of the books I’d quickly grabbed were what I call “white people with pretend problems” books. These are books about white, middle to upper class people who are facing some sort of crisis in their lives. The books are often beautifully written with richly written characters and dialogue, which is why I’m attracted to reading them. But I found myself increasingly annoyed and decreasingly sympathetic to the characters. I stopped wanting to read about some guy who wasn’t sure if he’d chosen the right job, the right wife and was contemplating an affair. Or some depressed housewife who’d become entranced with a new neighbor. These aren’t real problems. They are pseudo-dramas created by the bored who have never really experienced hardships in their lives.
The worst offender was The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. I’d just finished her Olive Kitteridge which I’d really enjoyed. The Burgess Boys was supposed to be about how a teenage boy commits a hate crime against (called a prank) the Somalis living in his town and it affects the community and his family. I thought, “Oh, this could be so interesting! What would happen if someone I love committed a hate crime? How would I react? Hopefully I’ll learn more about the Somali culture through this book too.” What it was instead was how these white affluent characters tried to wiggle out of blame for this kid’s crime. One lawyer had to give a hollow apology to the townspeople and then made a hasty departure and worried over the fact that his reputation had been ruined. His brother moaned all book about what his role had been in their father’s death as a kid and how he’d been in his brother’s shadow his whole life and that he wasn’t as successful of a lawyer. Really? Poor guy. Ugh. And then the Somalis in the book are given very little actual time. In this 300+ page book, I’d guess maybe 10 percent of it had anything to do with the Somalis. Some of the townspeople would say demeaning things about the refugees and the author did little to counter those comments. I said more than once out loud, “Is this book racist?” It felt racist. It cared more about the two white, affluent lawyers and their lame ass personal crises and their sister and her kid (who, by the way, gets sent to Europe to live with his rich dad and finds confidence and happiness, woo-fucking-hoo, lucky fucking kid) than the Somalis in the town who remained uncomfortable and scared. One Somali man seemed to try to find a connection to the people of the town, but it felt so much like an afterthought. I really felt like Strout missed a major opportunity here to discuss cultural relations and to show how a community could open its arms and accept a group of people who are seeking asylum. But nope.
So that was it. Since then I vowed to only read books about cultures different than mine, or with characters who are people of color, LGBTQ or about women who are not always white and middle to upper class. This means that I will still read books written by men, but I make an effort to choose books written by women and by people of color and those in the LGBTQ community. I’m a little suspect of white people writing about other cultures, but I’m willing to give it a try if someone recommends it. I need to hear different voices and while I still need to read books that speak directly to me as a women, I also I need to read about things outside of my own personal bubble.
Reading diverse books can do a few different things. The existence of diverse books gives everyone the opportunity to read something that reflects their own reality. This is why I find reading books about women very important. They speak directly to me and can validate my experiences and make me feel normal and not alone. Diverse books can also help expand the human understanding of other humans. It can give an education on historical events or current events, which in turn can help you understand how that’s affected a culture and perhaps someone you know. You’ll probably have a “I hadn’t considered that before” or an “oh, okay, I understand that a bit better now” moment. Your capacity for empathy will grow. Can you imagine if we all had a better understanding of each other? Of where we all are coming from? And why we are the way we are?
I’m finishing the perfect example of this right now: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas (thanks for the reco, Heidi Mills). It’s about an 11 year old Iranian girl in the 1970s whose family has moved to the United States a couple of times because her father works for an Iranian oil company and he is placed in Newport Beach, California. Zomorod, like any kid, wants to fit in and changes her name to Cindy. She spends the book making friends, being embarrassed of her parents and trying to navigate being Iranian in the US. She’s mistaken as Mexican and has one person say, “It’s a shame you don’t remember your Spanish.” People ask her about her camels and she’s constantly asked by her teachers if she’ll do extra class presentations on current events in Iran. And this is where it gets even more interesting. Dumas delves into Iranian history and the reader learns about the Iranian Revolution. The shah was overthrown and thrown out of the country and another leader took over and built a more Islamic government. When President Jimmy Carter allowed the shah to enter the US to receive cancer treatments, a group of activists entered the US embassy in Iran and kept 52 hostages for 444 days. In the meantime, Iranians were fleeing their country and trying to seek refuge. Americans began to openly hate Iranians. Cindy’s father loses his job and they become targets of hate crimes. Everyone in her family is scared for themselves and their families back in their home country and they go deeply into a depression. This book does a fantastic job of showing what it would be like to be Iranian and living in America during such a tumultuous time. It is a children’s book, or perhaps a young adult book, so it can be a bit cutesy at times. But it’s an easy read that gets the reader to really think outside of themselves and to develop empathy.
Another book I would highly recommend is Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This nonfiction narrative takes you to New Orleans where the warnings of Hurricane Katrina are just starting. Zeitoun, a Muslim Syrian-American, opts to stay in New Orleans while his wife and four kids flee to stay with family in Baton-Rouge. The hurricane hits and the city floods. Zeitoun paddles around the town in a canoe rescuing people who are trapped and feeding stray dogs. It’s completely heartwarming, but then it takes a Kafka-like turn when Zeitoun is arrested and thrown into a prison camp. He’s not allowed to contact his family or a lawyer and no one knows where he is. It’s indicative of the racist paranoia that followed 9/11 and you will have trouble believing that this is a true story.
Those are just two of the books I can think of, but below is a list of books and authors I would suggest.
- The Round House by Louise Erdrich or pretty much anything by her
- Missoula by Jon Krakauer
- The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
- Anything by Haruki Murakami
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (young adult graphic novel and so damn good)
- The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James
- Anything by Joseph Boyden (although I’ll admit, I have a hard time getting through his dense writing, but I’m always glad I power through)
- Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, both by Sarah Waters
- Eleanor & Park and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyosi (Thanks Mindy Denton, it's on my holds list!)
- Orhan Pamuk books
- Zadie Smith books
- Out by Natsuo Kirino
- How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston
That’s just a start. I know I have a long ways to go to make my own reading more diverse. I invite you to do the same. Expand your bubble. Read about people different than you and learn more about them. Fiction or nonfiction, it’ll all help create a better sense of awareness and empathy. If you have book recommendations for me, I’d be happy to put them on my To Be Read list!