Yes, I read. A lot. It opens me up to other worlds and perspectives. I embrace that possibility, particularly since travelling over the past few years has been impossible and in my own life rather limited over the last decade or so.
Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race‘, is still one of the most important books I’ve read in the last few years. One of my students recommended it to me long before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. I bought it shortly after that recommendation and it sat on my shelf until the summer of 2020. Whilst focused on race history and racism in Britain / the UK, there are so many parallels to our history in the US, a painful yet important-to-understand history if we have any hope of ever truly creating a society based on justice and equity.
As inspiring as the summer of 2020 was, 2022 feels rather disappointing given … well… everything. From additional book bans and a paranoia around CRT to the House GOP voting together to not support efforts to root out white nationalists and Nazis from the military and police forces, it’s depressing in many ways.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a rather intimate few hours at a reception for one of my writing heroes, Colson Whitehead. A quote of his was mentioned in the conversation from an interview he did with the Helsinki Sanomat, something to the effect that he viewed his place as a writer as not so much able to change attitudes or the world [I’m paraphrasing and likely butchering the conversation]. It struck me as odd, since I have found so much of his writing as well as the writing of others fundamentally shift my world and my perspective. And, historic events unknown previously to some after being fictionalised became known to others. Perhaps it isn’t for me to say how any one author’s works affect the broader public. But, I do feel like whether through random musings and social commentary or fictionalised worlds created, writers all have the power and ability to make us think and perhaps think in ways different to what we’ve always ‘known’. That ain’t nothing.
Following Reni’s lead, I am inclined to rely on the words of another writing hero, James Baldwin, a man long dead, but still painfully and rather chillingly seemingly more relevant now:
“The bottom line is this,” James Baldwin told the New York Times in 1979. “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimetre, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
I’ve been following Jared Yates Sexton on Twitter and other outlets for several years. Given his own background and my own, there’s a certain resonance that echoes loudly and clearly for me in his writing and works. His voice makes sense out of chaos, particularly since he’s living in a country which seems like a complete strange land filled with strangers to me after decades of living aboard despite always and first most being my home. It doesn’t hurt that he is an incredibly beautiful writer.
This book is equally informative and heart-breaking. I honestly just want to give him a giant hug and the offer of a shoulder because goodness me he has lived through some shit. I honestly had no idea.
But, I also want to place this book gently into the hands of so many of the men I’ve known in my life, beginning with most of those I grew up with, beginning with my uncle. Toxic masculinity does not merely hurt women — it’s just as harmful and dangerous to the men who must adhere to and live up to it. Perhaps even more so as evidenced by the self-harm and suicide they experience or rely on in order to ease their own pain.
I’ve long held the belief and attempted to live by the ideals that feminism is not simply a practice for women. If we as a society hope to live up to the idea of equality and justice for all — and I do mean all of us — then feminism must enfold men as well as women.
This books is not just a memoir or a survival tale, documenting and recounting one man’s journey through toxic masculinity, a journey he continues to traverse. It’s a treatise on how we might begin to heal very, very deep, festering, unhealing wounds. It’s a warning and an offer of hope of what we might lose if we don’t begin to unburden ourselves of ideals for men (and women) that relegate half of us to living up to standards which are far, far from possible and the other half of us as mere vehicles to reproduce a system and serve as shock absorbers for the inevitable rage that will bubble up from unending frustrations.
This book resonated with me on so many levels. I hope that everyone I know, particularly those who think of migrants / immigrants as individuals to fear, reads it. With an open mind and an open heart.
This week marks the beginning of the twenty-third year I’ve lived in a country other than my home country. And, I would not change a thing. Perhaps that is why I read it both with a sense of hope and a longing for my own home.
I am and always will be a citizen and product of the United States, and I remain steadfast in my hope for her future as a country and for her people, whether they’ve lived there for millennia or recently arrived. But, I also understand that as much, as I love her as a nation, both her troubled and horrific as well as impossibly hopeful history, that we as a people have much to learn from others and that we must look at ourselves not as exceptional but as one of many people who share this big beautiful blue planet.
I can only speak of my experiences as an American living abroad. I view the wealth of our nation in skewed terms these days given my own personal lens. Whilst migrants exist everywhere, those seeking a life in the US occupy a central position within this book.
Our richness as a nation does not come from simple monetary wealth, but in the richness of the various people who arrive on her shores in search of something better and brighter for themselves and their children. To me, the diversity of our people offers glimpses into the richness of us as a species. Our ways of life. Our traditions. Our glorious, luscious, delicious foods. And, this melding of ideas and ideologies as well as cuisines offers us bits and pieces we may both carry onward and leave aside or savour so completely and fully.
Yes, I am an American. But, I am also one of millions of migrants in this world. My circumstances are my own, but the reality of being a migrant — both setting up and creating a new home whilst missing that which I left — is a reality I share with every other migrant in this world. All we ever hope to find is a place of peace and acceptance, and an opportunity to flourish and survive. Not as outcasts or others, but as valued and valuable members of the communities we now choose to call home.
I did not intend on sitting down and ploughing through the remaining two-thirds of Masha Gessen‘s latest book, Surviving Autocracy, yesterday evening. But, that’s precisely what I did.
I regret nothing. (Although I did completely lose track of time and miss my weekly Ashtanga Zoom class, damnit. Let’s talk about white privilege and first-world problems a bit later, eh?)
It’s incredible to me how much of the past four-plus years have faded into our distant, collective memory. So, so much happened during the Trump administration, so many things which are frankly unimaginable, and so, so many things frankly made infinitely worse during the pandemic.
And, yet, so many of those atrocities were normalised rather efficiently and easily, as we moved from one insanity to another at a breakneck, mind-numbing and soul-crushing speed during his presidency (and seem to be continuing in his post-presidency period). It seems only fitting that now, just a week after his reign of terror (and I chose the word specifically) has ended officially he will also be tried in the Senate for a Second Impeachment. [It is not entirely lost on me or many that 45 Senators whose lives were also put in harm’s way during the Capitol siege voted to not proceed with that Impeachment trial because of course they did. I’m looking at you, Senator McConnell. Directly at you.]
Congratulations, asshole. You truly are the best at impeachments. No one single president has more, and you have 50% of them all to yourself. Well done.
Masha Gessen lays out with surgical precision just how utterly dangerous and quickly all of this has happened. And, I’m guessing, somewhat unintentionally provides sufficient evidence for why we are not quite out of danger of succumbing to Trumpism or quelling full-fledged and inescapable autocracy just yet. Chapter after eye- and wound-opening chapter, and in each of the three primary sections, Gessen provides more than ample evidence that we are in the midst of surviving autocracy.
Years of gaslighting, some of which predates Trump’s ascension, and more than 30,000 lies — not tiny embellishments or repeated falsehoods, but full on lies — and we are still dealing with those untruths, thanking no longer from his Twitter account. But, they are there. And, they continue, perhaps articulated a bit more eloquently and in a better package from a more polished messenger. But, those lies and the gaslighting continue. And, so many lap them up all for individuals so reckless, so vile and so callous and with a blatant disregard for lives of others in their charge.
But, this book is not a pity party or focused entirely on the rage-inducing history we are living. There is hope in between the despair. For instance, Masha applauds the civil society institutions and those with the moral authority who continually and unabashedly stood up to the injustices and atrocities and crimes these last four-plus years. Those institutions, sadly and surgically decimated in Putin’s Russia before they really had an opportunity to flourish and gain a foothold in Russian society and so precious to our own American experiment both at home and abroad, largely saved us. Yet, even they are exhausted and battered and bruised after four-plus years of battle. This final year, specifically, the final moments of mayhem notwithstanding, it’s a wonder any of those civil society agencies or agents still exist. But, resistance is a long war, not a single battle. And, that continued, tireless and sustained pushback has helped us perhaps prevented us from sliding in to complete autocracy. We still have far to go, however, and we can’t forget that more than 400,000 individuals have now lost their lives to Covid-19 in the USb alone from the inactions and lies spun by a White House and administration who cared not about us, but a great deal about themselves and holding on to power by any means necessary.
Since Masha finished this book in April of 2020, they did not have the opportunity to add their reflections on the protests that sprung up nationally and globally following the 8-minute live-lynching of George Floyd or the slaughter of Breonna Taylor of the hunting down and slaughtering of Ahmaud Arbery. Nor did they have an opportunity to fold into their book the genuine attempted to coup in the wake of the November elections and the siege of the Capitol as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ wins were verified, albeit somewhat delayed by those who sought to undermine free and fair(ish) elections in the US. Both of those broader events and the administration’s role in them are incredibly relevant to Surviving Autocracy. I’ll be looking for those reflections.
To me, the power of this book lies not just in Gessen’s arguments and the weaving together of a narrative that fits these last four-plus years flawlessly alongside the brutal realties of autocratic leaders elsewhere in the world. The power lies in Masha’s own history. Maybe it takes an individual who stood up to and faced Putin to rip off the mask of ugliness in a second homeland for us all, showing us those parallels we often think of as ‘other’, when in fact it is ‘us’ in this specific moment. That is, it takes the clarity of hindsight after witnessing an autocratic takeover of your homeland once to lay it all out for those who are too naïve or too hopeful or too optimistic and blindly faithful to an idea to realise that it is already happening to them in your second home.
But, we have survived (most of us), and we must endure and ensure that this never happens again. First, however, we really must stop the autocratic designs being laid out so carefully from taking a firmer hold over us and over those institutions we trust to prevail and protect us.
It might take all of us. But, we can survive autocracy.
Sarah Kendzior is a writer and journalist I admire, for her ability to cut through the noise and get to the point. For her ability to pinpoint larger, more systemic issues which remain largely ignored by far too many. The View From Flyover Country is necessary reading. And, so is this.
Despite buying this book shortly after its release, I put off reading it for some time because I knew it would be too enraging and I was too fragile. I knew, in part, it would break me just a little bit more.
That’s quite something given where we have collectively been these last five years, how we got here and where we are headed.
Because many of those remaining 197 Representatives, all of whom swore an Oath to uphold and protect the US Constitution, despite having survived that horrid event and admitting during the debate that the President was directly responsible for inviting the siege and encouraging the attempt to overthrow the Legislative branch of the government, still voted against impeachment.
Because, yet, another smoking gun from the President himself was ignored. And, whilst individuals in positions to hold him accountable, individuals who feel he is not fit to lead or occupy the Oval Office, watched him hold that smouldering gun and refused to use the very tools in place to preserve the rule of law and those precious checks and balances they claim to hold up as so sacred.
They did nothing. One hundred and ninety seven of them did nothing.
As enraging and tragic and heart-breaking it is to read, Kendzior’s writing is so, so beautiful. Sadly, it is also necessary, primarily to preserve this tale of American tragedy for future historians. Perhaps they can better describe and disentangle how the US ended up here, and ultimately how half of us cheered this madness on.
In the past few years, I’ve been rereading much of the writings from the civil rights era in the US. Familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis along with the works of James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Malcom X and histories detailing the lives of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers have featured amongst my reading lists.
It’s crazy how relevant those works are today despite being 50 or more years old. Many of these writings could have just as easily been written today. We still need to make further progress vis-à-vis racial equality, basic rights and justice, particularly in making right generations and centuries of oppression and injustice along with a fair amount of racial violence.
Granting further for others does not intimidate me nor leave me fearful that my own rights will be somehow diminished or limited. More rights for you means I will not enjoy a benefit or privilege based simply on my race or class or standing granted by birth within a particular category. Understanding my own privileges helps me understand what systemic changes are necessary in order to achieve equity and in order to right historical wrongs, whether perpetrated by myself or my ancestors. Generational pain is real and persistent. Understanding that helps me do better and helps my communities become more inclusive and more just.
I’m thankful for a new generation of writers like Ta-nehisi Coates and Ibram X Kendi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m enormously grateful to the many writers and activists who share their histories and their guidance on how we can be better allies and antiracists.
But, I’d be even happier if such works highlighting our need to continually work towards a more just society were unnecessary.
I clearly need to read more from Ursula K Le Guin.
I picked this book up based on the review a friend and colleague posted about it several months ago. As an instructor for PhD students and postdocs who seek to improve their writing skills, this seemed like an interesting read and possible source for new ideas and tips to share.
I’m delighted to say this book proved more than useful and highly insightful, and already appears to have influenced my own teaching as well as revising for various clients. (I’m not kidding: I caught myself yesterday hearing Ursula’s guidance as I proofread a manuscript for a client, finding several highly ambiguous and awkwardly phrased sentences that desperately required reshuffling.)
Filled with insight, tips, and useful examples from masters of prose, as well as exercises for both writing and critiquing, this is a highly useful book, both for those writing fiction or memoirs as well as for those like my own students attempting to tell the story of their research. As time (and energy levels) permits, I plan to work through the exercises. At the very least, I’ll be incorporating them into my own courses and gladly share them with colleagues.
This is a gem of a resources for those who seek to write as well as for those working with writers regardless of genre, style, length or topic. It’s also a bloody good read.
I found this book at a tiny little indie bookshop in the Cabanyal neighbourhood of Valencia when we were on holiday last December and January, which seems like a lifetime ago now. I bought this book because it was written by Alice Walker, one of my favourite writers, and because I’d never heard of the book before. It wasn’t until I started reading it that I realised it was a memoir. Despite the title, I didn’t really expect it to be about real-life chickens. Truthfully, I honestly love that she writes about her chickens, creatures I did not know she tended or owned.
This a a delightful little read. Given the weight of this very heavily burdened world, Walker offered me a brief and welcome respite from those burdens in her musings on chickens. Some of those musings are rather weird for me or somewhat silly. But, the simplicity of sitting with chickens and watching and meditating on their actions and movements is incredibly appealing to me at the moment. This book is like a very long letter or series of letters to her chickens, and that’s quite sweet in a world filled with too much sourness.
I envy her, and her chickens. And, now, I rather want my own chickens to tend and watch.
If like me, you need an escape from all that troubles you, this little book might just satisfy you. It did me.
Bernardine Evaristo offers an a masterful example of storytelling at its absolute finest. Each character was painted and shaped so carefully that you feel as though you’re drifting in and out of individual lives rather than chapters, akin to making the rounds rather than sitting and reading about them.
Some characters I loved and wanted to linger with a little longer; others I’d like to have thrown a cream pie in their face to simply snap them out of their own myopia and selfishness; some made me consider realities I never completely imagined or gave much time to, and challenged me to shift my own perceptions a bit or wildly. The challenges posed were welcome and natural rather frightening and threatening.
And, all of this written in a form that alarmed me a bit at first, but made sense along the way.
I’ve admired Trevor Noah because he’s funny AF and also speaks about and advocates for policies I myself support.
But, reading about his life in South Africa as a child born into a world where he embodied an actual crime by simply existing is immensely powerful and profound. And, I’m not sure that I could admire him any more now, particularly after reading the last chapter of this book.
Central to this little gem is the story of a mother and her son. But, the richness of that relationship and the context within which it is lived is more than worth anyone’s time. That it’s beautifully crafted is all the more rewarding. Moreover, it’s a story we would all do well to read carefully and consider thoroughly given the times we’re currently navigating and the reckoning these times call for.
It shouldn’t surprise me that I finished this book laughing through choked-back sobs. But, I did.