Author Julia Alvarez, who escaped the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and came to America when she was ten years old, has said:
“I would go as far as to say that by reading books, entering other realities, and then taking those adventures back into our own lives, we are freedom fighters. One of the first things that happens in a dictatorship is that books are confiscated, people are not permitted to congregate and share ideas and stories… I know because I lived that reality in a dictatorship. You know it because you have lived that reality in the novel I have written or in other novels you have read about similar situations.”
The English major in me likes this idea. I wrote an essay my senior year about impoverished imaginations being the root of conflict and injustice, and if we read more stories, we would be come more human- humane. I like the idea that even though I’ve never lived under a dictatorship by reading and listening, really listening, to her story, I can understand something about the world, and humanity, and injustice.
Yay for the humanities.
I just finished Julia Alvarez book In the Time of Butterflies which is about the four Miribal sisters who were part of the revolution against the oppressive dictator Trujillos in the DR, and who were murdered in 1960, becoming symbols of the revolution. I knew absolutely nothing about the DR before this book.
In her essay at the end of the book, she talks about the sisters’ bravery, and then comments,
“In some ways, we become brave almost by accident. Something happens and we respond to that challenge courageously and compassionately. But really, all along the way to something big happening, we’ve been cultivating a compassionate heart, a listening and big-hearted imagination. And one of the ways to cultivate such an elastic and inclusive imagination is by reading books. Think about it. When you read, you become someone else. Terence, the Roman slave and playwright, who freed himself with his writings, once wrote, “I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me.”
So, here are a couple of books that have been cultivating my compassion and expanding my imagination recently (these are affiliate links, so if you want to check out the books on amazon, be sure to click through and help my blog :D):
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela : In a world awash in Trump-rhetoric, we need this book right now. This is the story of North African Muslims living in the UK post 9/11. A nominally Muslim professor has a student comes under suspicion for being a radical, and she’s pulled into the turmoil. Mix in some romance and historical flashbacks to the Caucasian war, I mean, it’s a page turner! There were so many things I didn’t know that I learned about: Sufism, the Caucasian wars, varying understandings of Jihad…but on the other hand there were things I knew very well: feeling threatened for being religious, feeling the need to over explain and pre-empt other people’s impressions (because you’re religious), battling the desire to put people into categories, to resist being suspicious of others but at the same time being careful … it’s all in the title, right? The Kindness of Enemies. Multiple characters face enemies in this book, and to their surprise find them to be kind. Beautifully written and really engaging. Rating: ****
And After Many Days: Ille Jowhor This is a debut novel that takes place in Nigeria. I think he’s attended Chimamanda Adiche’s writing workshops, and maybe it was because I knew that, but I definitely associated his writing with Adiche’s. The story reminded me a bit of Purple Hibiscus in the sense that it was a coming of age story. It’s set in the midst of the turmoil of 1995. Again, I’ve never been to Nigeria and know nothing about it, but seeing real people thrown up against crazy circumstances, and wondering where to place their loyalties and how to move forward in the face of loss is very powerful. He has great characters and a page-turning plot. Rating ***
Between the World and Me: Ta-Nahesi Coates Okay, this isn’t fiction, but it falls into the “expanding imagination and empathy” category, because it’s Coates’ very personal story of how it feels to live as black in America and raise a black son. It’s not long, but there’s a reason it’s on the #1 Best Seller list. Rating ****
All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr: Because everyone needs a good resistance story from WW2 every now and again to rekindle hope in the face of darkness. This book is written like poetry, it’s a gripping, page-turning plot, and all the tiny little pieces fit together at the end which makes it beautiful. It’s not completely happy, but it’s not heart-breakingly sad, either. It’s just very real. And all the characters are very human, there are no two-dimensional stick people: the Germans are people as well as French resisters. Rating: ****
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: JK Rowling My husband and I have been reading these out loud because he has never read them and that last time I read them I was in highschool. These books (especially the last one) have so much to say about the courage to fight for what is good and right even when you’re worn out and tired and it doesn’t seem like anything will ever change. Rating: ****
Selma: Also another cheat- this isn’t a book, it’s a movie. We have been talking about social movements in sociology class, so I had them watch Selma in class the other day (it’s the end of the semester, come on). When I was trying to figure out how to get a copy (it’s not on Netflix!?) I asked around in the department if any of them had it. None of them did, and one professor suggested I show an excerpt from Eyes on the Prize instead. The impression I got was “Show them a factual documentary, that’s more scholarly/real/not hollywood glamourized”. But the literature major in me rose up and refused to subject my students to a documentary made in the 90’s with a documentary-sounding narrator talking over grainy black and white footage and interviews with people in strange 80’s clothing. How alienating. So we watched Selma, because in Selma,even though the the particulars of some events/people/conversations are fictionalized, it’s much closer to reality than the documentary. After you’ve walked with King for a few hours, and seen the pressures and tensions and internal conflict in the movement, seen the behind the scenes deals and the ugliness of racism, identified with the 80-year-old man whose grandson was killed, and the dignified middle-aged woman who has been trying to register to vote for years, the march at the end is so triumphant. Their victory is your victory, and it makes you weep. As it should.
None of my students had seen this movie, so it was exciting watching it with them. Also, David Oyelowo is just legit. And he has some cool things to say about not producing rubbish Christian art. Rating: ****
So- what books have you been reading lately?