Hard to believe we’re in the second half of this very long year. In July, I went back to work and started semester reading for my MFA program. Both of those life changes slowed me back down to five books, as well as how much time each of these books demands (in a good way).
The Names of All the Flowers by Melissa Valentine (Feminist Press)
This month’s Book Cult pick was a memoir about family and a Black life cut short. Melissa Valentine takes us around her Oakland and illuminates the bonds and strains that make a family. During our virtual Book Cult, Valentine said that she spent a lot of time worrying about what her parents would say, but their reactions were pride and love for her. Often we hear writing advice that says something about how the family’s life ends when the writer’s begins, but Valentine gave me a fresh perspective on writing to open doors for your family to walk through into deeper relationships. I’ll be carrying this memoir with me for a long time to come. You can hear our playlist of 90s nostalgia here.
Rerun Era by Joanna Howard (McSweeney’s)
I wanted to read more about family so I turned to Joanna Howard’s slim, hilarious Rerun Era, a memoir about growing up in rural Oklahoma in front of a television set. Howard uses TV reruns from her childhood to illuminate her upbringing, and the humor infused into each page slowly gives way to personal tragedy, each emotional bookend strengthening the other. I flew through Howard’s book in one night, so I’ll definitely return to it for rereads, much like the reruns she admires.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap (Fence Books)
“We are all, no matter how little we like it, the bearers of unwanted and often shunned memory, of a history whose infiltrations are at times so stealthy we can pretend otherwise, and at times so loud we can’t hear much of anything else.”
The Racial Imaginary is a necessary volume bringing together writers from various genres to reflect on how race shows up in their work. I’ve seen it referenced in Jess Row’s White Flights and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, and I love how its sharped ideas have sparked others. This is essential reading for every writer, especially white writers, for understanding that we are all writing about race in one way or another, but there are both traps to avoid and fruitful places to mine for new meaning and new openings. As they write in their introduction, quoted above, Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda argue that “in the presence of good writing a reader is given something to know. Something is brought into being that might otherwise not be known.”
Mean by Myriam Gurba (Coffeehouse Press)
In Myriam Gurba’s memoir, she writes with humor and irreverence about race, sexual assault, and other violences within her childhood and the larger culture. Honestly, I struggled at first to be on the page with her because the concept of “meanness” didn’t quite work for me when applied to demeaning people’s physical appearance and quipping about traumatic forms of violence. By the second half, however, Gurba takes the book through a whirlwind of cultural and personal perspectives on sexual assault that counterbalance everyday meanness with the larger cruelty of rape culture.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Public Affairs)
There are a lot of good antiracist reading recommendations, and good criticisms of those recommendations. My short take is balance: you should be reading authors of color who are not here to teach you about antiracism (there are plenty of books out there), but you should also be reading authors of color on antiracism if you want to know how to sustain your politics with theory that turns into practice. Ignorance in American history runs deep, and we should combat it with knowledge. I’m just getting around to Ibram X. Kendi’s first book, which I think should be in everyone’s history curriculum. In 500+ pages, Kendi takes you from the first recorded instances of racism to the latest. The picture is grim, but the silver lining, if you can call it that, is that knowledge is a tool to combat the prolongation of racist ideas we can begin to recognize and call out for what they are. What I especially love about Kendi’s approach is that he categorizes three groups: segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. Within those categories, a person could be all three throughout their life and could even espouse the ideas of all three within one day. The goal, Kendi suggests, is to move people away from the former two categories so that they do not entrench ideas they mean to resist, and to move them firmly to the latter category of antiracism in thought, word, and action.