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?

5 Ways Art Transforms Trauma

My second batch of illustrations is up at The Rumpus, this time for an essay called “Bring It” by an author named Marcia Aldrich I feel really fortunate I got to meet in this way. This was a really intense experience for me because the essay was about, at the core, rape. That the essay went live the week after the news about the recent Stanford rape case added a whole new dimension to what was already an intense artistic process for both Marcia and I, I think (I haven’t talked to her directly about it but I gather this from her Facebook posts about it).

There were a lot of levels of processing going on in this illustration experience; it gets meta fast. Firstly, in the essay alone, you have Marcia processing others’ rape experiences, and Marcia processing her own rape, both in the act of writing and reflecting. Then in my reading of the essay, you have me processing both those experiences, plus processing my own experiences of rape. Then in my illustrating it, I’m processing all those things again — not just thinking about them, but creating another thing, another product. It’s like a mother-effing emotion factory, for real. We are manufacturing and marketing trauma. That sounds bad at first unless you’re on what I call the good team, the team that wants to heal and ease and make better ourselves and the world.

It was weird working on this piece because it was during the middle of my normal 20-something yuppie life and I just felt so torn up and weighed down in a world that was otherwise kind of fine. How do you explain to your coworker or your soccer team or some guy you’re going on a second date with that the reason you’re all worked up is because you’ve been stewing in ideas about rape on purpose all week? Most normal people, if/when I tell them what I’m dealing with, would be like, “Well, just don’t think about it.” Or: “If it bothers you so much, why do it?” Well, friends, here is why: an artist’s job is to be bothered. Our job is to feel the feelings other people aren’t feeling, to give life and fullness to feelings people are only a tiny bit in touch with. Because feelings are an important step in growing and healing as individuals, communities, and societies — and a step we often jump over or pass by too quickly. And we shouldn’t be quick to move past that step, because a lot of complex things occur in us and around us in that step. Here are the things I think art helps us do with our experiences and feelings:

  1. Dilutes it. In the periodic table of experiences, trauma is more of a platinum/iridium than a helium/hydrogen. For those of you too lazy to Google that and remember your Chemistry 101 class, what I mean is that trauma is a really dense, intense, heavy thing. You don’t talk about trauma like you talk about what you ate for dinner last night; you don’t throw trauma at somebody like you pitch a wiffle ball. You know that plop-sunk-thunk noise that happens when you drop a big rock off a pier when you’re camping at the lake and kind of bored? That’s what happens when you drop something into conversation like, “Oh yeah, I got touched inappropriately by my uncle when I was 17.” Expressing trauma through other mediums — writings, images, music — does something to the chemical structure of our experiences, sort of heats them up or cools them down and gives them enough air and space to dilute a little bit and be handled in different ways. We can breath them in in a way that doesn’t suffocate us; we can hand them over to someone else without breaking our arm or theirs. Ice is too cold to lick without getting your tongue stuck sometimes; steam can burn you — but water usually you can drink and let it become a part of you and help you function better. An artist’s job is to make something palatable: when Marcia writes about these things, she’s trying to hold your attention and get you to consume them. She’s cooking vegetables as best as she can. When I illustrate them, I’m trying to do the same.
  2. Changes it. That trauma can change form alone brings hope. Trauma involves such a feeling of stuck-ness that it’s overwhelming: things will always be like this, I will always have this experience with me, I will always feel like this, this will always be awful, I will always be broken. Maybe this is why kids like playing with Play-Do & Silly Putty: the very nature of pliability offers the possibility of newness, difference. Trauma in another form — especially one that is easier and prettier to see and understand — is the first hint of real hope.
  3. Beautifies it. Simply put, art takes what it ugly and incomplete and makes it beautiful and whole. The person I think did this best — or at least the person who did it in a way I liked best — was Picasso. His pieces Massacre in Korea and Guernica, among others, take awful global events and show them in a way you can look at, that you want to look at more to learn more about. When a thing is beautiful, we are more likely to spend time with it, and therefore more likely to learn more about it and process and feel and heal.
  4. Shares it safely. Hard things are hard to talk about — it’s hard to admit and know that difficult things exist. But it’s important because it’s real! We all have these dark thoughts and it needs to be okay because we need to be a kind of people who are prepared to deal with real terror, and art is a good place to do that all safely, with low risk. In relation to terrible experiences, people say things like “I cant even imagine,” but I don’t think that’s okay, because you need to be able to imagine! If you can’t imagine hard things, then you’re caught off guard and ill-prepared when you run into something hard. Art not only helps you feel more comfortable in your community (i.e., it doesn’t shock or surprise you when someone is doing or going through or feeling something bad, and you can move more quickly to empathy and understanding and decision-making), and also prepares you for future challenges. Art is like a controlled burn: you light this little patch of grass on fire and learn to put it out, and nobody gets hurt.
  5. Preserves it. I’m going to stick with the chemical metaphor because it’s working here: in the way that water comes in gas, liquid, and a solid all while remaining technically H2O, so does our trauma. Art enables us to preserve the integrity of the experience while still, again, making it palatable. You don’t want someone to have to go through what you went through, but you also want them to understand. You know how someone has been through something awful, like losing their father or going through chemo, and people say things like, “You’ll never know unless you go through it”? I don’t think that’s completely true: I think we can start to know what each other is going through, if we’re willing to really share and really listen. That said, I also think that each of our experiences is unique, and while no one will every fully experience a thing in the exact same ways that we have, the differences in our stories both add to and give insight to and shine light on our experiences so we can see them in new ways we might not have thought about before. I think we worry that if someone understands, it means a thing is easy — and it’s not, it’s hard. I wonder if the idea that other people will never understand is a wall we put up to keep people from trying, to keep ourselves from getting hurt more when we’re already hurting. Because, shit, sharing pain does hurt. Illustrating this essay broke my heart a million times over again for a million different reasons, Marcia’s and others’ and my own. If it stops hurting, though, it means it’s not worth working to try and make the world better. We need to remember the pain of things in order to remember why we’re working to build a place that has less of it.

Anyways, I feel lucky to get to do something I believe in, for fun even if it’s tough sometimes. Check out Marcia’s essay & my illustrations here!

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.

Book Review: Daring Greatly, or, “5 Pages That Could’ve Drastically Changed My Life If I’d Read Them Earlier On”

My book club read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (of lots of kinds of fame but probably mostly to the common person YouTube fame) so I finally borrowed the copy my mom had been nagging me to read for a while now. I’d never actually read anything of hers (just little clips here and there on the internet) and I don’t usually read self-helpy type of things but a little peer pressure goes a long ways, and I’m glad I got to read this book because it helped me identify something really pivotal about my personality that I kind of had a sense about but couldn’t really zone in on. That’s why books are great — they give you a sort of focus point or image to better understand something, and also that feeling that somebody else has thought of it / is dealing with it too (the kind of validation/affirmation we all need sometimes to feel confident and move forward a bit more).

In a nutshell, this book talks about what it means to live vulnerably. That’s kind of Brene Brown’s whole shtick, but what Daring Greatly does specifically is highlight different tendencies people have to live in a state of shame, and different tactics for breaking free of that. There’s sections on how shame manifests itself in both genders, in parents, and in workplace environments, and suggestions for how to adjust behavior to empower “Wholeheartedness” (Brown’s catchphrase for “living your fullest self” or whatever etc) for all parties involved in interactions, conflicts, and general day-to-day-living.

As an outgoing, outspoken, extroverted person, I’ve never really had issues opening up and sharing information with people. This isn’t exactly a good thing all the time, and because especially in our loud culture people value and react to and respond to whatever’s making noise, it’s easy to hide under a cloak of acceptance and validation that isn’t really real or certain as I’d like. I, like the rest of us, find myself wracked with self-esteem and insecurity issues on the reg, and I also get confused because — aren’t I a confident person? Aren’t I comfortable sharing things and meeting people and talking to them and trying new things? I have a million friends! I’m always busy! I’m always doing stuff and connecting with people! So if I’m so good at all this, why do I still feel so crazy and defeated and lonely so often?

Cue FLOODLIGHTING. One of the tendencies Brene Brown talks about people using to keep from being too vulnerable is a sort of overbearingness or oversharing that is, in actuality, a shield for getting truly close to people. For a supernerdy example, there’s a kind of Pokemon that almost exactly models floodlighting: Wobbuffet. Wobbuffet is this tiny little dark shy creature that essentially has an inflatable decoy attached to itself. The decoy is big and fun and cute and flashy: “HERE, LOOK AT THIS, DEAL WITH THIS.” That’s what I do: “HERE’S ALL THIS PERSONAL INFORMATION ABOUT ME, PLAY WITH THIS WHILE I GO HIDE AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS.” That’s what Floodlighting is. Brene Brown doesn’t talk about Pokemon, though. She uses the “light” language as an appropriate metaphor — she tells readers to “twinkle like stars” and let people see your inner beauty a little bit at a time instead of blinding them with a big flash of light that leaves them unable to see the real you.

As a person, this section was super convicting. I could think of countless situations where I’d experienced the negative effects of my floodlighting tendencies, and all of them resulted one of two things: either the person involved had thought we were closer than I actually thought we were (because I’d shared certain information that seemed important or deep); or, the person involved got overwhelmed with me and needed to back away. Both of these always resulted in disconnect and conflict and disappointment and dissatisfaction — for both sides of the party, of course, but differently experienced on each side, resulting in further disconnect and, usually, failure (or at least lack of true growth) in the relationship.

This section also gave me a lot to think about as a writer. Writers/artists/actors/musicians inherently go around sharing deep parts of themselves and throwing them out into the world for people to experience as they will. Easy example: I’m in love with Josh Ritter because I spend every day singing all the words to all his songs, but the dude will never know who I am, as close and connected as I feel and as loud as I scream at his concerts. Another easy example: you reading this right now, you could be my mom, or you could be a total stranger who has no idea who I am actually. It’s confusing because you read this and you know more about me than a lot of people do, but you also still don’t know me at all, in some sense. That’s why the internet and art is wonderful and beautiful and transcendent and great: we can get to know each other in real ways that we wouldn’t have otherwise, especially if we don’t idealize or idolize the things and people we’re encountering.

Kinda got off on a tangent there, sorry. More on how this section affected me as a writer: a while ago I did this big nonfiction project on body waxing, er rather, Brazilian waxing. The shock value there was extreme — “Did you say vagina?!”Everybody wanted to talk about it (see person type #1 above), except for people in my religious spheres, who definitely did not want to talk about it at all (see person type #2 above). In hindsight, the whole thing might have been just something I was doing out of nervousness and not really knowing how to be comfortable with my true self in front of people. “LOOK HERE’S THIS CRAZY THING I DID!” I have a lot more material for the project, but I haven’t felt comfortable enough that I’m not acting out of a floodlighting motivation to finish writing the rest of the essays. Brene Brown’s section here convicted me about writing things not just to emotionally vomit on people, but to create a small, easy-sloping ramp to allow people (and yourself!) to move cleanly into new connections or new ideas. The same goes for the blog, which, if you’ve been following over the years, has often dared but not always dared greatly. It is a fine line between being open in a way that’s helpful or informative to your readers and a way that’s self-indulgent and deflective. I used to think the telling factor about where you stood in relation to that line was sincerity, but the tricky thing is that you can often find sincerity on both sides of the line. Now I know it’s really something that has nothing to do with anyone at all — understanding the motivation in my own heart at the time of desiring to write, writing, and publishing. God that sounds so cheesy! But it’s true. Check yo self before you wreck yo self!

So that’s a little thing that I got out of the book that affected my understanding in a big way! Remember, floodlighting was just one of many tendencies Brown describes. There are so many different personalities out there and all of us have different experiences that shape the way we react to things. I recommend at least skimming through a copy of the book to see if any of the tendencies stand out for you, and to see if you can pick up and tactics for being more vulnerable, less living out of shame, and more your whole good self.