Fiction I read in 2020

I believe that fiction, and art more generally, is never frivolous. Abolition, to give one potent example, relies heavily on the power of imagination because we must be able to imagine a world beyond cages, beyond borders, beyond policing of all kinds as we begin to build that new world. This work requires us to strengthen our imaginations, and part of the work of abolition is also recuperating imagination from capitalism, which is relentlessly working to kill and co-opt our ability to imagine things for ourselves. Capital (and capitalists) wants to show us things as it sees them, as it wants things to be; it wants to shape the world and sell it back to us. It does not thrive when we are able to imagine, shape, and reshape the world for ourselves. Human beings have powerful imaginations, but only when we cultivate them.

Fiction is critical just when things seem to be at their most serious, and, in that spirit, I share some food for your imagination.

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I strongly encourage anyone purchasing books to avoid Amazon in particular and other large chains in general (the library is also always an option). If you don’t have a particular independent bookstore or even if you do, you can order any of these books easily online at Bookshop and support independent bookstores.

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  • The Plague – Albert Camus – Very cliché read, and yet I cannot say enough how many passages leapt off the page as if they had come out of the Washington Post. I thought this would be depressing and yet it was validating (and infuriating). The excitement in the air about the vaccine feels so much like the end of the book.
  • Loop – Brenda Lozano – A very apt book for right now. A book about waiting, and about nothing and everything.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji – Akwaeke Emezi — Powerful, affirming, sad book about nonbinary gender, but not as sad as I thought it would be.
  • Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera – A beautiful allegorical tale about the borderlands between the US and Mexico, recommended by many readers of Mexican literature as an alternative to Jeanine Cummins book (please don’t read that book)
  • The Deep – Rivers Solomon – Aching, haunting, powerful but not devastating. Perhaps one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.
  • The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste – An intersectional tour de force on colonialism, class, gender, caste, and race, and maybe one of the most difficult books I’ve read for me personally, possibly because of the combination of the subject matter, format, and unfamiliarity with the history and region. A difficult read that was worth it.
  • Storm of Locusts — Rebecca Roanhorse – the sequel to Trail of Lightning which I loved last year. It did not disappoint!
  • Mildred Taylor’s Logan Family series  – This is highly recommended YA by the woman who wrote Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It turns out Taylor wrote a whole series of books around multiple generations of the family in that book, beginning with The Land. In August I disconnected from all electronic communication and hung out in my house to detox. During that period, I read five books, and in the end, The Land was the one I ended up recommending to everyone.
  • American Marriage – Tayari Jones – A really compelling and engrossing book about the effect of large social forces on one family.
  • Brooklyn Brujas series — Zoraida Córdova – YA about Chicana teenage witches. Do I need to tell you more, really?
  • The Distance between Us – Renato Cisneros – Part family memoir and part reflection on individual roles and responsibility? ignorance? innocence? in the midst of governmental terror, this is the true/fictional account of the son of a Peruvian general in the 1970s and 1980s, given to me by a close friend who lived through the same period and recently translated into English by the wonderful Charco Press.
  • The City We Became – NK Jemisin — If you are not yet reading everything by NK Jemisin, you may want to start. I am, so I will continue to recommend it.
  • Unpregnant – Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan – A very funny book about a serious subject (restrictive abortion laws). I recommend that this become a genre.

Especially good non-fiction:

  • Who Killed Berta Cáceres? – Nina Lakhani – A powerful investigative account of how the murder of Berta Cáceres was arranged and how the crime is embedded in larger forces of extractivism, corruption, and especially counterinsurgency tactics linked directly to the US. Some of the clearest writing I’ve read describing how counterinsurgency actually works inside communities.
  • Indigenous People’s History of the United States – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz – Should be required reading for every white and/or settler person in the United States. I had picked and chose chapters to read previously, but Dunbar-Ortiz’s thesis grows slowly over the course of the book and I appreciated the ideas much more deeply when I read the whole thing straight through.
  • Dead Girls – Selva Almada – Imaginative, powerful, and intimate book about femicide and machismo exploring the unresolved murders of 3 girls in the interior of Argentina in the 1980s and their ghosts. Just short enough and just the right tone to be read without quite breaking my heart completely.
an image relevant to the COVID era from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

Why Hillbilly Elegy Makes Me Angry

Just a quick post throwing together many great essays and discussions that explain why I’m not in to Hillbilly Elegy, movie and book, now that it’s getting even bigger. I know some people in my life have found it compelling, because I know it does show some things that some of us identify with, and that most people really want to see ourselves and the conditions of our lives represented in books and movies. But I think we can and should find better versions of this representation, and this is why:

  1. Most importantly: JD Vance’s personal politics are terrible – he hobnobs with Charles Murray and the American Enterprise Institute, he does not believe that people need or deserve social assistance and actively promotes policies to cut food, shelter, healthcare for others. Ask yourself why this person has written this book and what its purpose is. This podcast is a great summary (on this and the whole thing): https://citationsneeded.libsyn.com/news-brief-review-netflixs-charles-murray-themed-hallmark-film-hillbilly-elegy
  2. The whole thing REEKS “culture of poverty” – when will we be done with this idea and the damage it has caused?
    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/hillbilly-elegy-review-jd-vance-national-review-white-working-class-appalachia/
  3. “The problem with Hillbilly Elegy’s version of the Pygmalion story is that it never reckons with the fact that J.D.’s whiteness—bought and paid for, in part, by Scots-Irish ancestors through bloody colonial warfare—is not just incidental but integral to his triumph. Hillbilly Elegy is a Bildungsroman about becoming middle-class white that never asks why that gold standard is problematic.” The book and the author’s politics are absolutely about promoting biological notions of race and other forms of white supremacy, even more so because it is claiming not to be about race (again, look up Charles Murray!):
    http://bostonreview.net/arts-society/ellen-wayland-smith-mythic-whiteness-hillbilly
  4. There are real questions of “poverty porn,” driven particularly by questions about who made the movie and who wrote the book (Vance doesn’t seem to be particularly tied to the community, or maybe what I mean is, allied with it – is he really writing about himself?). More to the point there is a long history of harmful representation and Appalachian stereotypes: https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2020/11/25/hillbilly-elegy-poverty-porn-239358
  5. This story disappears many other communities in Appalachia – what do we get by continuing to only represent/consume this subset of experiences? https://theoutline.com/post/3147/elizabeth-catte-what-you-are-getting-wrong-about-appalachia-interview?zd=1&zi=ymnfodks
  6.  It’s a terrible (inaccurate) way to understand the “white working class,” which is precisely what many “coastal elites” have tried to do with this book: https://prospect.org/culture/books/unlearning-lessons-hillbilly-elegy-nov20/
JD Vance, a white man, with a blue tie and light gray jacket, with his mouth open at a podium.
JD Vance

Fiction I Read in 2019

Once again, I put together a list of the fiction that I read over the past year that I loved and want to recommend. I found that in doing so, both this year and last, I was reminded of what I learned through reading literature. Indigenous author Rebecca Roanhorse suggests that fiction, and especially science fiction, is important because “the future you imagine is the future you get.” She goes on to say: “for me, it is important to imagine a future that centers Native people,  that highlights our stories and our ideas and our languages, science, and art. Otherwise, the world suffers. Stuck in colonizing language and thought (Space conquest! Colonizing planets!) without considering that there might be another, better way.”

  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
    • A haunting, beautiful, and thoughtful book about colonialism and children taken from their families on the southern border
  • The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
    • A wrenching, powerful book about love, death, and politics that takes place across decades about the beginning of the AIDS crisis
  • Akata Witch – Nnedi Okorafor
    • Kids and magic, better than Harry Potter. I finished the first book and immediately downloaded the second from the library, Akata Warrior.
  • The Sympathizer  –  Viet Thanh Nguyen
    • I was a little slow on this one, in part because I was worried it was going to be reactionary, but I found this book to be satisfying politically and quite funny in parts. I wish everyone could read the section skewering Vietnam War movies.
  • Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
    • A quick-moving, adventurous read about monster killing. Also a thought provoking piece of literature that taught me in a new way (as I hoped it would) that representation really matters. Let’s hope there is a movie or TV option. I’m #50 on the waiting list for the next book.
  •  Brown Girl in the Ring – Nalo Hopkinson
    • Second book I have read and absolutely loved by this author of Black speculative fiction. my favorite part of this book might have been its insights into family dynamics although it is also leaving me thinking about the skills I should be building for the climate crisis.
  • Disoriental – Négar Djavadi
    • A story of a family and particularly one woman (a punk rock aficionado) in exile from Iran. A beautiful novel about state terror and family drama.
  • The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
    • I didn’t see the movie, so I don’t know how it compares. I really liked the book and felt like it was a good companion read to When They Call You a Terrorist; each covered certain things the other did not. I liked the emotional terrain and complexity of this book which used the power of fiction to tell another side of the story of police murder. If you want to know about the Black Lives Matter movement though, you should do further reading.
Picture of three women in an attic (the Vera sisters) looking at a large old book (the Book of Shadows).
The Vera sisters understand the power of a book.

cite Black theorists

cite-black-women_3_orig

Cite Black Women t-shirt from the Cite Black Women Collective

On page 8 of Keeanga-Yamahta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation she says something that stopped me in my tracks: “Black revolutionary Stokely Carmichael and social scientist Charles Hamilton coined the phrase ‘institutional racism’ in their book Black Power.”

Although I understand the phrase institutional racism so well that I have actually taught its definition and usage regularly, this is the first time that I have ever heard its origin, and specifically that its origin is attributed to Stokely Carmichael. I am dumbfounded.  Of course, there can be no question that I am to blame for this. But there is also a much larger question here about sociology. I use and teach “institutional racism” in the ways

Stokely_Carmichael_in_Alabama_1966

Stokely Carmichael in Alabama in 1966

that sociologists around me use it, and the ways that I learned it. I have never before heard it attributed it to anyone specific, much less to Carmichael and Hamilton or the Black Power movement. We seem to have simply claimed it as something we do, as part of our larger systemic way of looking at the world. In fact it’s often used interchangeably with “systemic racism.” And that may well be a good and important thing. But it should not come at the cost of erasing the contribution of Black scholars, Black people, and Black movements to our theorizing and scholarship. While we can and do debate the ownership of any one person to a word, no one hesitates to cite Judith Butler when they use the phrase “gender trouble” though these words surely had other connotations and meanings before and after this scholar. We cite Marx when we simply refer to “capital” or the “means of production” and sometimes Foucault gets all of “power.”

This is a question of our citational practices and how they reify existing power structures. This is about how we continue to actively create a white academy. Sara Ahmed discusses this (and provides one alternative possibility) in her nourishing book Living a Feminist Life, which does not cite any white men:

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this is not simply through writing the book, through what I found about what came up, but also through giving presentations. As I have already noted, in previous work I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas. We cannot conflate the history of ideas with white men, though if doing one leads to the other then we are being taught where ideas are assumed to originate.

It is for this reason, among others, that the Cite Black Women campaign was created. As the Cite Black Women’s Collective says, “It’s simple. Cite Black Women.” But also: put in the work. Find the citations and place Black women in the center of your syllabus and your sociological research and even your informal political thinking. The collective has a praxis:

  1. Read Black women’s work
  2. Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom).
  3. Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for Black women to speak.
  5. ​Give Black women the space and time to breathe.

And a rad t-shirt (pictured above), which supports the Winnie Mandela School in a working class, Black neighborhood of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. I’ve already briefly discussed how amazing Winnie Mandela was on this blog. The collective has also organized conference events (including ASA)  and #CiteBlackWomenSunday.

Look, this is not just about “you.” I certainly need to do better at this too. The fact is, unless a person has been making a conscious effort to do this for several years now, it’s likely that many of us need to be putting some work in to do better at this. The point is that we all need to do the work because it isn’t going to happen without it – no one is going to start getting the credit they deserve for their contributions to our discipline and to our thinking without all of us practicing the racial justice that we preach. Here is a short list of Black scholars who influenced sociology to get you started.

Graveyards and Gardens

I came across this short passage suddenly the other day in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the BodyIn this radically shifted perspective I found myself able to move toward more radical acceptance of death and constant change. Maybe you will find something else.

Six bearers in long coats and white scarves carried the body to the grave. To call it a grave at this stage would be to dignify it. In a garden it might be a trench for a new asparagus bed. Fill it with manure and plant it out. An optimistic hole. (p 176)

The Grave of Rowan Morrison

“The Grave of Rowan Morrison,” Cathy G Johnson. Image found separately and used with artist’s permission.

Saturday Rec: Fiction I Read in 2018

To celebrate the end of the year I’m recommending a whole slew of things to read! This is a non-exhaustive list of the novels I read this past year that I loved and would love for you to read. Why read fiction, you ask? Please watch the fabulous (and dearly departed) Ursula K LeGuin at the National Book Awards in 2014 explain that it is in part because we “need writers who can remember freedom” (transcript here).

  • LaRose – Louise Erdrich
    • I’ve read several of Erdrich’s books and I plan on eventually reading all of her work – but slowly, so I don’t run out of it.
  • The Killing Moon and the Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood Duology) – NK Jemisin
  • She Would Be King – Wayétu Moore
    • A magical realist tale of the founding of Liberia. I actually recommend not reading any more summary than that.
  • Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante
    • A painful but beautiful novel about the sudden disappearance and loss of the narrator’s mother in Ferrante’s signature style. I think I have now finished Ferrante’s catalog and I feel a bit lost.
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
    • A book about four generations of a Korean family from before the two Koreas and their migration to Japan. A great transnational novel on race, identity, and migration.
  • Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver
    • I’ve read and loved all of Kingsolver’s work and this is her newest.
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
    • A very beautiful and surprising novel about nonbinary genders and the militant struggle in Kashmir.

If Ursula K Le Guin did not convince you, my favorite academic advice columnist has also recommended reading fiction among many other wonderful suggestions for those experiencing “outrage fatigue.” Here’s to imagining (and building) a different world in 2019.

leguinbookawards

Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards in 2014.

a spell for writing

Some days I have so much to say that I can’t find a way to say anything.

Other days I run so dry of words that I have to read a book.

Learning to tell the difference feels like magical self-awareness, but it is a simple spell.

  1. Breathe deeply and know that both will pass quickly.
  2. Spend a few minutes letting it all out on the page.
  3. If nothing comes out, spend a longer time letting the ideas flow in.

Saturday Recommendation: When They Call You a Terrorist

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

I do not think I have ever met anyone who could not somehow benefit by reading this book. White people, middle class people, and anyone who experiences the privilege of not being Black in the US will find a lot illuminating in Khan-Cullors powerfully told story of growing up in a culture which simply does not value your life or those of your loved ones. The honesty and vulnerability with which this contemporary story is told means that there is a lot to be learned even for those who feel that they have done a lot of listening, learning, and studying; there are new nuances here that are important. This same emotional heft means that the book has value (at least, I imagine so) for those who do share her experiences because it is validating. Its intersectional dimensionality – careful attention is paid here not only to gender but to sexuality, trans visibility, and more, including how communities and movements have succeeded and failed in organizing at certain moments because it is always a struggle—mean that there are opportunities for everyone to learn. Organizers and activists will also find Khan-Cullors’ words inspiring , validating, and simply nourishing. Those who are not activists will find the book helpful for understanding why others, such as the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, do what they do.

Two short passages that occur near the end of the book:

 “…now it was late, maybe 1:00 in the morning, and I was heading back to my cottage where Mark Anthony was supposed to be sleeping but instead was standing outside our home, barefoot, in pajamas and with his hands cuffed behind his back. … They were able to gain entry to our home because in St. Elmo’s, before this, we never locked the doors. But on this night, the police entered through the back door. They said he fit the description of a guy who’d done some robberies in the area. They offered no further explanation. … Later when I hear others dismissing our voices, our protest for equity, by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many brown-haired white men were snatched out of bed when Bundy was killing women for sport? … Mark Anthony’s cuffs are finally removed, but the police do not leave my home for another two hours, taking down all kinds of information about him, running his license, hoping to find any reason to take him away, this man they yanked out of his own bed in the middle of the night in the house where he lives in a community where he is loved” (pp. 193-195).

And then, a discussion about the formation of the BLM:

“We agree that there is something that happens inside of a person, a people, a community when you think you will not live, that the people around you will not live. We talk about how you develop an attitude, one that dismisses hope, that discards dreams” (p 199).

This book is a record of life in Van Nuys. This book is a record of a movement. This book is a record of state terrorism. This book is a record of a dream.

sadness and struggle

I’ve been trying and failing to finish a lot of writing over the last few weeks. I have felt overwhelmed, with a lot to say, but at the same time not quite able to edit and polish and publish what I’ve got.

Today, after once again writing about 1,500 words without finishing a post, I finally picked up Cindy Milstein’s Rebellious Mourning and read the first essay, Benji Hart’s “Feeling Is Not Weakness.” In it, Hart talks about how sad and depressing it is to connect the dots on the systemic violent oppression of black and brown people. Hart says they feel guilty for being sad, because Hart knows one of the functions of the system is to create demoralization. Sadness makes it feel like this campaign of demoralization is working. In Hart’s words:

“I feel guilty for being demoralized. I should be angry. I should be fiery with unquenchable passion. I should be as relentless as the state. If I am sad, the state has won. If I am sad, the fight is over”(p. 20).

I too feel sad. And I had not realized until just at this moment that I have had writer’s block because I didn’t want to write anything out of my sadness. I didn’t want to let Husky, or city council, or Walker, or Trump, or whoever control my life and my successes and make me sad. I didn’t want the state or capital to win. But feeling sadness when confronted with tragic realities is what makes me human. It is what makes me strong. Hart puts it like this:

“Experiencing hurt around the realities my people and I face is more than understandable; it shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality as inevitable, not forfeited belief in my own right to life.”(p. 21)

A compañera of mine put it another way:

“We’re in the heart of the Empire,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” she said, “the Empire has no heart.”

My sadness does not mean the battle is lost. It means I’ve refused to lose what’s at the core of struggle and what we struggle for: my dignity and humanity. My belief that better worlds are possible. My compassion for others. My willingness to see and face systemic injustice. My meaningful connections to people living precarious lives of all kinds. My hope that people can be better people, and that they can find the will and courage to stop enacting their power over others. It’s only when I become so cynical that I lose these things that the fight is over. Sadness is not the sign the battle is lost but the sign that it is still raging, and the sign that I am still willing to fight it.

a blue arm and a white arm hold hands across a paper background with foundation and charity names. the paper is torn to reveal the words "True Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." - Martin Luther King, Jr

Art by Kevin Caplicki for the Poor People’s Campaign, available at Just Seeds Collective.