I usually avoid getting political here on my blog. I have opinions, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that I try to stay focused on the topic of writing, so I don’t get much chance opine on the issues of our time. But I’m taking a moment here. Because there is actually something we can do to make the world a better place, and it’s actually pretty damn easy. Here it is: read something from outside your bubble.
Over the years, I’ve read more than a few articles about how literary fiction can make us more empathetic and less racist. Check out this article from Pacific Standard, or this one from Scientific American, or this one from The Guardian.
In short, what they say is that reading literary fiction helps us to be more comfortable with ambiguity and more able to understand different perspectives. And in the world we’re living in, it seems like these are skills we could all stand to bolster.
So I hereby challenge all of us to take the #OutsideMyBookBubble challenge.
The #OutsideMyBookBubble Challenge
It goes like this: Commit right now to reading ten books by authors who don’t look like you. That’s the only rule. There’s no time frame. You don’t have to read them all at once. There’s no genre requirement. And to be clear, I’m not even saying you have to finish these books.
In fact, you have every right to put down any book that doesn’t grab you, always, because reading is, and should be, fun. I’m not assigning homework here. I am simply proposing that we pick up books that might open our minds a little, read the first forty pages and see if they grab us. If so, keep reading. If not, try another.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
In its simplest form, What We Lose tells a story of a young African American woman coming to terms with adulthood and the death of her mother. As Thandi tries to process the truths that cannot possibly be, she swings from gut emotion—“She’s gone. But she’s here, I can feel her. I can see her that day they told us that everything was going to be all right. But she’s not here. But I can feel her arms around me. It feels like the breeze coming off the river…it smells like her breath.”—to searing observations about the word in which we live: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like a being a well-dressed person who is also homeless…you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe.” The novel weaves in and out of the past and present, from memories of childhood to Thandi’s own pregnancy and love affairs, to visits to her mother’s childhood home in Johannesburg. There are photographs, graphs, drawings, pages filled with a single line that infuse the story with an immediacy. Through Thandi’s pain and process, she (re)constructs her identity from the memory of her mother, family, her experiences, and the reality of the world that surrounds her. A breathtaking novel. –Al Woodworth
Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina Nahai
From Tehran to Los Angeles, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a sweeping saga that tells the story of the Soleymans, an Iranian Jewish family tormented for decades by Raphael’s Son, a crafty and unscrupulous financier who has futilely claimed to be an heir to the family’s fortune. Forty years later in contemporary Los Angeles, Raphael’s Son has nearly achieved his goal–until he suddenly disappears, presumed by many to have been murdered. The possible suspects are legion: his long-suffering wife; numerous members of the Soleyman clan exacting revenge; the scores of investors he bankrupted in a Ponzi scheme; or perhaps even his disgruntled bookkeeper and longtime confidant.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
This sweeping family saga encompasses seven generations of descendants of a Fante and his captured Asante house slave. After giving birth to a daughter, Maame manages to escape, making her way alone back to her own village. She is taken in by an Asante warrior, becomes his third wife, and has a second daughter by him. The two sisters, Effia and Esi, will never meet, their lives will follow very different paths, but their descendants will share a legacy of warfare and slavery. Effia will marry an Englishman who oversees the British interest in the Gold Coast slave trade. Esi will be captured by Fante warriors, traded to the Englishmen, and shipped to America to be sold into slavery. Progressing through 300 years of Ghanaian and American history, the narrative unfolds in a series of concise portraits of each sister’s progeny that capture pivotal moments in each individual’s life. Every portrait reads like a short story unto itself, making this volume a good choice for harried teens, yet Gyasi imbues the work with a remarkably seamless feel. Through the combined historical perspectives of each descendant, the author reveals that racism is often rooted in tribalism, greed, and the lust for power. Many students will be surprised to discover that the enslavement of Africans was not just a white man’s crime. VERDICT Well researched, beautifully told, and easy to read, this title is destined to become required, as well as enlightening, reading for teens.—Cary Frostick
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. While brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart–motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce–pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bone is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.
Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.
Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.
Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson
Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.
Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour
A wry and haunting first novel from a fresh Iranian-American writer, Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a sweeping, lyrical tale of suffering, redemption, and the role of memory and inheritance in making peace with our worlds. Growing up, Xerxes Adam is painfully aware that he is different—with an understanding of his Iranian heritage that vacillates from typical teenage embarrassment to something so tragic it can barely be spoken. His father, Darius, dwells obsessively on his sense of exile, and fantasizes about a nonexistent daughter he can relate to better than his living son; Xerxes’s mother changes her name and tries to make friends; but neither of them offers their son anything he can actually use to make sense of the terrifying, violent last moments in a homeland he barely remembers. As he grows into manhood and moves to New York, his major goal in life is to completely separate from his parents, but when he meets a beautiful half-Iranian girl on the roof of his building after New York’s own terrifying and violent catastrophe strikes, it seems Iran will not let Xerxes go.
Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling
On the reservation, danger looms everywhere, rising out of fear and anger, deprivation and poverty. Fiery-haired Louise White Elk dreams of both belonging and escape, and of discovering love and freedom on her own terms. But she is a beautiful temptation for three men-each more dangerous than the next-who will do anything to possess her…
Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe
Red Shoes, the most formidable Choctaw warrior of the eighteenth century, was assassinated by his own people. Why does his death haunt Auda Billy, an Oklahoma Choctaw woman accused in 1991 of murdering Choctaw Chief Redford McAlester? Moving between the known details of Red Shoes’ life and the riddle of McAlester’s death, this novel traces the history of the Billy women whose destiny it is to solve both murders—with the help of a powerful spirit known as the Shell Shaker.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Plague of Doves—the first part of a loose trilogy that includes the National Book Award-winning The Round House and LaRose—is a gripping novel about a long-unsolved crime in a small North Dakota town and how, years later, the consequences are still being felt by the community and a nearby Native American reservation.
Though generations have passed, the town of Pluto continues to be haunted by the murder of a farm family. Evelina Harp—part Ojibwe, part white—is an ambitious young girl whose grandfather, a repository of family and tribal history, harbors knowledge of the violent past. And Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, who bears witness, understands the weight of historical injustice better than anyone. Through the distinct and winning voices of three unforgettable narrators, the collective stories of two interwoven communities ultimately come together to reveal a final wrenching truth.
Ravensong: A Novel by Lee Maracle
Lee Maracle, author of the best-selling I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism, sets this novel in an urban Native American community on the Pacific Northwest coast in the early 1950s. Ravensong is by turns damning, humorous, inspirational, and prophetic.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as six other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
A “wild opera of a novel,”* The Queen of the Night tells the mesmerizing story of Lilliet Berne, an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept into the glamour and terror of Second Empire France. She became a sensation of the Paris Opera, with every accolade but an original role—her chance at immortality. When one is offered to her, she finds the libretto is based on her deepest secret, something only four people have ever known. But who betrayed her? With “epic sweep, gorgeous language, and haunting details,”** Alexander Chee shares Lilliet’s cunning transformation from circus rider to courtesan to legendary soprano, retracing the path that led to the role that could secure her reputation—or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.
Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family of distinction. Her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of that same family. Sudha is startlingly beautiful; Anju is not. Despite those differences, since the day on which the two girls were born, the same day their fathers died–mysteriously and violently–Sudha and Anju have been sisters of the heart. Bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend, the two girls grow into womanhood as if their fates as well as their hearts were merged.
But, when Sudha learns a dark family secret, that connection is shattered. For the first time in their lives, the girls know what it is to feel suspicion and distrust. Urged into arranged marriages, Sudha and Anju’s lives take opposite turns. Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household. Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. When tragedy strikes each of them, however, they discover that despite distance and marriage, they have only each other to turn to.
Set in the two worlds of San Francisco and India, this exceptionally moving novel tells a story at once familiar and exotic, seducing readers from the first page with the lush prose we have come to expect from Divakaruni. Sister of My Heart is a novel destined to become as widely beloved as it is acclaimed.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
After escaping the cruel wrath of her abusive father, Boy Novak finds comfort in a small Massachusetts suburb and a widower named Arturo, whom she later marries. Boy is quite taken with Arturo’s daughter Snow, but it’s the daughter she has with Arturo that complicates their quiet lives–Bird’s birth reveals that both Arturo and Boy are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Harkening back to the great passing narratives, like Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and, most notably, Passing by Nella Larsen, Boy, Snow, Bird is about both the exterior and interior complexities of racial identity. The perception of Arturo and Boy’s race and social class is threatened by Bird. But it’s the psychological conflicts that are the most devastating. Arturo was raised with “the idea that there was no need to ever say, that if you knew who you were then that was enough, that not saying was not the same as lying.” Is passing dishonest if it isn’t an active decision? Boy, Snow, Bird is a retelling of Snow White, and the wit and lyricism of Helen Oyeyemi’s prose shares the qualities of a fable. But this novel isn’t content to conclude with an easy moral. In fact, Oyeyemi complicates the themes she establishes. Her writerly charms shouldn’t be taken for granted; the beauty of her writing hides something contemplative and vital, waiting to be uncovered by readers. –Kevin Nguyen
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves. The New York Times has praised Lahiri as “a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.” The Namesake is a fine-tuned, intimate, and deeply felt novel of identity.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
In this debut novel, the García sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía—and their family must flee their home in the Dominican Republic after their father’s role in an attempt to overthrow a tyrannical dictator is discovered. They arrive in New York City in 1960 to a life far removed from their existence in the Caribbean. In the wild and wondrous and not always welcoming U.S.A., their parents try to hold on to their old ways, but the girls try find new lives: by forgetting their Spanish, by straightening their hair and wearing fringed bell bottoms. For them, it is at once liberating and excruciating to be caught between the old world and the new. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents sets the sisters free to tell their most intimate stories about how they came to be at home—and not at home—in America.
In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas―“The Butterflies.”
In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters―Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé―speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression.
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years is nothing short of remarkable. Her protagonist, August, is one of four girls coming of age in 1970s Brooklyn who become “always and all ways” friends until one by one their lives take different turns. Woodson is able to convey so much with so little—her words and sentences are beautifully crafted to fill you with emotion and understanding in a single line that feels effortless and light. The girls’ lives move to the beat of disco rhythms, the chant of Double Dutch, and later the pleas of their boyfriends to do just this one thing…Their neighborhood is both lifeline and trap, as so many places are, and it’s hard to say for sure why some break the tether and others become what they once scorned. Another Brooklyn is a breathtaking account of growing up female and black in a time of conflicting pressures and crushing assumptions, and in doing so creating a lifetime of memories. –Seira Wilson
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love.
I’m not going to bother listing books by white authors. Something like 90% of books published are by white authors. You don’t need my help with that.
Be The Change
Gandhi has been quoted as saying: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
In short: Be the change.
Taking this tiny step as readers is such a simple way to engage in the world around us, to open our eyes and equip our minds to see what is outside our own small realms of experience.
Who’s with me?