5 Books That Made A White Girl A Little Less So

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Honorable Mentions:

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?

Breakfast Book Review: Accidental Saints

Alright everyone I’ve been this really solid combo of busy and sick and tired lately so I haven’t gotten around to blogging until TODAY and I’m feeling SUPER refreshed and ready to pump out like 5 posts about things that have been going on (there’s been a lot going on!) so hopefully you enjoy it. They’ll all be pretty quick and hopefully engaging, don’t worry, ’cause it’s boring to sit around and write 5 long blogs and it’s beautiful outside today (even if I don’t end up going out there ever).

I checked out this book from the library before I went to the Festival of Faith & Writing this past April because Nadia Bolz-Weber was one of the headlining speakers at the festival, but the book had so many holds on it that I didn’t get to read it until this June. I read another book by her, Pastrix, a couple years ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to seeing how this one put a different spin on her shtick. Nadia’s shtick is this: “I’m a cranky, tattooed, swearing, progressive Lutheran pastor.” She’s made a splash in the Christian communities over the last several years by doing what I think is actually really Christian work: calling out bullshit and opening her arms and heart to people regardless of their place in life. I like Nadia because she isn’t hung up on the narrowmindedness and inanity of 21st century American religion and all whiny about it; even though she’s frustrated by it, she’s over it and on to something else: namely, running her own little weird church, full of all kinds of characters and stories.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People is full of other people Nadia knows by name and soul. This didn’t exactly surprise me, but I think it was noticeably different than what I might have been expecting out of a pastor’s follow-up book. I’d heard chunks of Nadia’s personal story in Pastrix and in her talk at FFW, and it was refreshing to see Accidental Saints be not just another rehashing of her personal memoir. It’s about her of course because she is the lens through which we’re viewing these experiences, but it’s really about her learning to see other people as people and strive (sometimes succeed, sometimes fail) to take herself out of the focus. The book is ultimately about allowing the self be a window to others and the world, which I think is what we’re supposed to do, both as people and as pastors and as authors.

At FFW, Nadia had talked a little bit about how it was really important to her to keep her church from being “The Nadia Show” even though clearly she’s got a few books and a whole internet following based on it; how she’s aware she has “founder’s syndrome” and how she intentionally only speaks there 1-2x/month because a) she doesn’t want to be the one in charge and knows others can teach & share well, too and b) she knows how exhausting it is to put your whole self into a work done well, and needs recovery time between sermons (as opposed to just pumped them out factory-megachurch style. So the book’s content and delivery is definitely consistent with all that, and it’s refreshing — both to anyone who’s gone to church or worked in a place where someone is struggling to stay in power, or to anyone who’s been annoyed at memoirs that dip into self-interest and self-indulgence even in the author’s quest for “liberation” and “understanding.” We tell our stories best by admitting how many other people they involve and reach besides just us.

A few other random takeaways that stood out to me while reading this book:

Starting to Sort out Sin

At one point she quips that “you are not punished for your sins, you are punished by your sins.” Sin is something that, in my sort of spiraling away from an organizing church community and into this path of finding out what I think God and faith mean in the world as a whole, I just do not know what to do with. Is it something religious people made up for their own power/benefits/control issues? Is it something that actually has consequences & ramifications even when we “get away with it”? Is it something God wants us to stay away from so we have fuller, better lives? Is it something we do sometimes anyways because we’re people and it actually is part of some God-ordained reality? Can we have a world without it? You’ll note I have a lot of questions on this front.

Anyways, Nadia’s idea there stuck out to me because, if you read it right, it takes this kind of guilt-pressure off of the social construct of sin that we have. I’ve heard ideas like this in guilt contexts before, like, for an easy example, the idea that people get STDs because they were being promiscuous. The trouble with evil cutesy guilt warnings like that is that they aren’t always true: you can be promiscuous without getting STDs and you can get STDs without being promiscuous. Being punished FOR your sins has a 1:1 ratio to it: X leads to Y, which is tricky because it leaves out space for a lot of possible factors between said X and said Y. Being punished BY your sins involves what I feel like is a larger context, i.e. fairly importantly, room for science. I don’t believe that you get sick because you did something bad, but I do believe you get sick when you put your body under stress and sometimes that happens when your motives are mixed and you’re confused and conflicted. With that understanding, you can look at what your motives are and decide whether it’s your action that’s actually the problem, or the source of your motive (is it, for example, some people-enforced twist on a religious idea or actually a real truth that holds up when you question it?).

Usually when I’m feeling sick and tired, like I was for a lot of this week, it’s because I took on too much crap, which isn’t a bad thing, but living under whatever obsessive motivations tell me to take on those things isn’t living in a fuller truth. Would we call that sin? I might, lightly. I think I’m equating sin with acting in a manner based on beliefs that aren’t true in the greatest possible context. Like in few contexts (I want to say “no contexts” but I’m not sure that’s always true) do you actually need to murder someone. You know?

Making Room for Human Motivation

At another point she notes that part of the reason her church is so weird is because the people who are coming are people who are free on Tuesday nights. “Because compelling, dynamic people who are natural leaders are busy,” she explains. It’s nice to see a leading pastor pay attention to the finite reality of time and energy, vs. a lot of Christian/American places I grew up in that were like “DO MORE ALL THE TIME BE A BETTER CHRISTIAN WIN AT LIFE AT GOD!” On the flipside, I’ve been in churches where all that they attract are those compelling dynamic people (think Bay Area, Orange County) and us weirdos don’t end up at those kinds of places unless our guilt trumps our insecurity, which happens sometimes.

This bit made me think of how when I moved to Sacramento I made all my friends on Meetup.com and was always wondering why our Saturday hiking groups were full of such eccentric people — it’s because everyone who’s already part of a community doesn’t have their whole Saturday free. It’s a good skill to be able to look at people and think, objectively, why they are or aren’t present somewhere. It’s not just “so and so doesn’t go to church because they’re bad” or “so and so goes to church because they’re good” — I like the way Nadia opened up the door to the idea of many other reasons why people may or may not do something or show up somewhere.

Nobody really likes to talk about the fact that people end up in religious communities, often, because they’re lonely and needy. That makes religion seem like a joke, like something you do or make up or believe in because you’re weak. But weakness and loneliness and neediness is part of who we are as people, so if we can start to talk about it — even while admitting that making up religion might be an option — I think we can learn more and do more to support our communities, both in and out of church walls.

Poolside Book Review: Disappointed in “After the Parade”

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Writing this blog because I’m disappointed in this book, After the Parade by Lori Ostlund. I read it on recommendation from a new writer acquaintance who I think suggested it after reading this little vignette I wrote about a gay man driving home from a job interview — I didn’t make that connection until I started reading and realized the main character is a middle aged gay man. I liked the characters in this book and I really liked the writing, but I didn’t like the book because it doesn’t move forward. It starts like good stories are supposed to: en media res, in the middle. The reason this is supposed to work in a narrative sense is because the author can unfold bits of the past at the same time as moving ahead with a current plot, ideally giving the reader this really full sense of existence that feels like real life (moving through your day with your head full of memories and experiences, etc) and so is relatable and enjoyable. In terms of content, this book did that — gave equal page space to both past and present experiences — but let’s not forget that page space does not equal emotional weight.

Most of this book seemed to serve the purpose of either a) explaining why the narrator was the way he was (or why characters close to him were the way they were) or b) get the narrator half a step forward in life. In the sense of a), I end up feeling disappointed because the book feels like a riddle. “See this? It’s because this.”  I might as well be reading a textbook or a therapist’s notebook. And in terms of b), I’m disappointed because I get cheated out of an actual story. The book starts with Aaron leaving his partner Walter, and unpacks a lot of Aaron’s family history as it follows him on his journey out to San Francisco and into a new life. It book ends with Aaron realizing he misses Walter and reconnecting with him and all tat, but also more emotionally prepared to maybe be more a whole person in his next relationship — perhaps this guy George he just met at a pie shop, perhaps not. We don’t find out; the book just ends with Aaron thinking about it. The hint of that is meant to show us how Aaron has grown and changed over the course of the novel and to give us a glimpse into the idea of the kind of life he might live now that he has changed. So the emotional weight ends up falling 90% in the past and 10% in the present/future, which doesn’t leave us with a fair fight, which is what we need to stick around and carry on — the promise of something exciting even as the pages close.

I love the subtlety and gentleness with which the characters in this book are treated. And I love the way that literature allows us to sink in to hard places quietly and softly, because life can be loud and hard. But also, this is not how great literature was made. Do you remember the first 50 pages of Les Miserables? It takes a story to start a story. A hero’s journey involves a return, sure, but that involves two steps forward and one step around a whole wide world — not just down the front steps and sort of kind of back again maybe I’m not sure will they get out of the front yard or just go back inside and watch TV?

My assumption here is that great literature can and should change our people and our society. I’m happy if someone reads this book and relates to it and connects and changes and all that… but I don’t think it’s loud of drastic or enough enough to be carried along into the memories and actions of the future. I feel grouchy saying that but life is short and I’m on the hunt for books at really rock the world.