There’s this essay by Chinua Achebe called “The Truth of Fiction” that talks about how reading and writing fiction can change and affect our real world in serious, important ways. I keep a copy on my desk and try to read it quarterly at minimum. It’s from this book of essays, which I’ve never read but cannot recommend going out of your way to read enough even just for this essay. I can’t believe it was written in 1978 and the world is still the way it is but… here we are, still trying.
I didn’t know how to personally deal with all the racism-based-violence that’s happened in America recently, so I started making an effort to read more about black people. It feels like kind of a cop out because — me sitting in a comfy chair reading when other people are attending rallies, forming coalitions, volunteering for change? But this Chinua Achebe essay made me believe that by reading fiction I could actually change myself and therefore actually subtly affect change in the world around me. When I thought about it, I also realized the fact I even thought racism was a problem was simply just because I’d read books about black people that made them feel real and human to me, even though I didn’t know a lot of black people firsthand myself. Here are five books I’ve read over the past eight or nine years that have helped me become a different person in the way that I view (and hopefully treat!) others who look different than me:
- A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. I often wonder about the kind of person I would be had I not taken an African Lit class in college. This book is the autobiography of a former Sierra Leone child soldier, a topic that was kind of buzzwordy around the time (think Invisible Children and Kony 2012)… I mean I saw this book for sale at Starbucks, you know? But just because it’s sort of trendy doesn’t mean it can keep you from crying for hours and hours in your dorm bunkbed, which I definitely did. Social justice as a trend — uf, I have a lot of thoughts about that for another time. The point here is, this is a story of what it’s like to be 12 years old and have totally normal desires (family, friendship, excitement, adventure, activity, praise) and then have them totally warped. It’s an extreme story (burning down villages to kidnap kids and give them drugs and machine guns to work on some larger political scale), but this book breaks it down to a level you can relate to because you were 12 once. Makes me think about how different our lives can be even though the cores of us are so the same.
- July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. This book is short and impactful, something you can read on a long afternoon, and I probably should do so again because now that I’m writing about it I’m realizing I don’t remember it too well (not necessarily a raging endorsement I know but seriously it was good I’m sure of that). It’s a family story, and done so in a way far richer than something say, Franzen writes of families. I mean add in having to deal with apartheid and suddenly everything becomes more sinister, critical, and meaningful, right?
- Native Son by Richard Wright. Not only am I not well versed in other races’/nationalities’ histories; I’m often equally ignorant of my own. My understanding of Cold War history & communism is still, despite more than one high school World History video project, elementary at best. Native Son helped me learn more about the way all these traumas intersected at once and manifested on a super specific level (i.e., the task that all great fiction should strive for). This is a violent and stressful book — it took me three months to read just because of how much it was all affecting me — and that’s yet another perspective it seems important to consider; the point of view of someone who commits violence. Tough book that’s well worth it if you can stomach it.
- The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma. Buahh, this is my favorite book recently. I need to stop lying to dudes on dating apps with this Steinbeck spiel I have on autopilot. The Fisherman actually reminds me Anna Karenina in the sense that it’s a family story, it dips really darkly and deeply and devastatingly for most of the book, and it has this moment of redemption that balances things out and re-sets the scales in the end. One bad habit I realized I have as a white person is thinking that all Africa is the same for all time — villages, huts, women carrying water on their heads, blah blah blah. Reading this book helped me learn the dimension and eras of other countries, namely, Nigeria in the 1990s. Little things like the fact that someone in Africa has a paper wall calendar like I have behind my desk… I dunno, that’s what helps other cultures feel real to me. Details like that help break down these sort of round, vanilla stereotypes we have in our heads — that’s how and why fiction works.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I picked this book for our latest book club and I feel badass about my decision because the book was pretty great. This is a multi-generational book a la something like One Thousand Years of Solitude, and it’s rad to read that sort of book from an African perspective (versus Latino or Russian perspectives like I’ve read before). This was one of those books where I was kind of humming along in it, and then all of a sudden I felt this gut wrench in my stomach, not because something so exciting happened on the page, but because something happened and I was distinctly aware of how much effort it took (families, years, travel, trial, tribulation) to get to that point. That’s why reading and learning history is so important — you realize the magnitude of actions; it’s not just these one-on-one or two-on-two interactions, but these culminations of all these people and all these events that all went into something. That magnitude is powerful. Besides, history is a different culture in itself! May we keep learning from it so that we can make ours brighter, better, and more gentle in the future.
I realize these are all mainly Africa-centric selections, and there is a lot of good African American literature out there too. The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Freddy D himself are two that come to mind; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was probably my earliest brush with the tragedy of slavery in America. I know there’s tons more — any other suggestions?