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?

20 Minute Book Review: “The Wolf At Twilight” Howls So True

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I recently went to Grand Canyon West, located on the Hualapai Nation in northwestern Arizona. In my narrow-minded, West Coast ways I had known about the “Trail of Tears” but always thought that was just like a Southern, Andrew Jackson type of thing — but at the GCW park I learned about Hualapai history and how the U.S. Government made the Hualapai people move to essentially concentration camps on crappy land 200 miles away (and many that didn’t die on the long, hot walk there ended up dying from malnutrition and disease on the new land that wasn’t their home with life-giving resources). Imagine if somebody made me walk all the way to Bakersfield and made me live in a Costco parking lot. I know that sounds possibly ideal because you could ask people for food on the way to their cars but pretend that it was a deserted parking lot and the Costco had been shut down for a few years. I just wanted you to imagine the vastness, the bleakness, the barrenness, the heat, the pointlessness.

Anyways, I came back from this trip kind of ruffled up about the whole thing. I didn’t know that kind of cruelty — particularly the marching type of part, and the Native American part I mean; I’m well aware of like Angel Island and the Japanese internment camps out here and stuff — took place that close to my idyllic home of California. My boss was saying the other day that Native Americans are only 2% of California’s people, but that’s still 780,000 people and 780,000 people matter, yo!!! She said this in the context of the work we are doing, which is largely in Hispanic communities (because California is increasingly a largely Hispanic community itself), so obviously in terms of reaching the most people with the projects we’re doing we’re going to translate and orient things towards Latino culture first rather than Native American culture simply because of the numbers game there. I say all this just to defend what my boss was saying I guess, to make sure you and I know she was talking in a work project context and not a human value context.

Anyhow, my other coworker recommended this book Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn. I accidentally checked out the sequel to it at the library instead, The Wolf at Twilight, so oops on me, but I read it anyways and it was a good decision. My coworker says the first one is about the author experiencing a change of heart as he experiences and learns about the Lakota people — essentially a white man coming to terms with non-white men on land they both share, despite some tricky history. When I heard that I was glad I’d read the sequel, because I’ve heard/felt that story before, and I liked where the sequel picked up in terms of relationship. That said: if you’re not super versed in Native American / U.S. history (beyond what they teach you about like corn and Squanto in elementary school, or casinos), you should start with the first book.

The Wolf at Twilight starts with a preface by the author explaining that he wrote the first book and then fell out of touch with the people he wrote the book about, which is a weird feeling — did he use these people as a spectacle? Just to make a story? So from a writer standpoint, those were really good questions for me to think about as I watched Kent return to the Lakota people by request of Dan, the Lakota Elder he met in the first book. Dan wants Kent to come help him bury his dog, who died a while ago, but who he’s been keeping in the freezer until he could get a hold of Kent and ask him to come out. What starts as a trip for a dog burial ends up being a search for the story of Dan’s sister Yellow Bird, who was lost to their family when she was taken to go to a white person school. Side note — these schools are terrible. I think that all education back in the day was shitty — think my dad telling me about getting hit by rulers by nuns as a youth — but coupled with the power dynamic of racism and colonialism, it was even worse. Can you imagine being taken from your culture and forced to do weird things you don’t understand, and then punished severely for not doing them? If you can’t you should read this book to make you appreciate the way you were raised and have empathy for the way others might have been.

I have to go to yoga now but I recommend this book a lot. It reads fast. It gives you a glimpse into both present-day reservation life AND the history of the Lakota people in North America (both the peaceful, spirit-led way they lived and the upheavals they experienced when settlers moved into their world). Also on that note, if you’re looking for incredible Lakota fiction, check out Louise Erdich, one of my all-time favorite living authors. Reading her work probably prepared my mind and gave me a little bit of context for the world of Neither Wolf Nor Dog.