On ‘This Land Is Our Land’ by Suketu Mehta

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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.



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On ‘Surviving Autocracy’, by Masha Gessen

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.

This is an important book. Along the lines of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny and Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight. It’s also tragic. And, that’s truly what these last four years have been: tragic, and sickeningly real.

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.

On ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ by Sarah Kendzior

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

However, finishing this book the morning after Trump was impeached for the second time, after a mere 10 of 207 House Republicans voted for that impeachment, has left me shattered.

Why?

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.

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Continuing the fight for Civil Rights

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.

Protest postcard #10 of 50

On ‘Steering the Craft’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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.



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On ‘The Chicken Chronicles’ by Alice Walker

The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


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.

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On ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book was stunning. Absolutely stunning.

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 loved this book. So, so much.

#blm #blacklivesmatter #blmreadinglist

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On ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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.

What a brilliant, brilliant book.



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On ‘The Uncounted’ by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis

The Uncounted by Sara L.M. Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.

We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.

‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.

‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.

Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?

My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]

‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.

Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.



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On ‘Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m not sure that writing a review of this particular book is necessary. My first reaction can be summed up quite simply: Read this book. Now. Right now.

Given the long-overdue awakening taking place not just in the United States at this moment, but across many former colonisers and countries characterised by white privilege and power at the expense of everyone else, those of us who know nothing about the lived experiences of POC need to listen carefully and silently to their voices now. This book goes a long way in granting us at least one voice rather clearly and unapologetically. She is not angry, although she has every right and reason to be. She is not preachy or admonishing, although I’d certainly expect anyone writing a book like this to be. This book made me uncomfortable and angry, despair and cringe, and it made me mutter again and again, ‘what the fuck is wrong with people’?! Not POC, but those of us who have and know white privilege without ever accepting or acknowledging it.

The simple notion that history and institutions have made it difficult for those of us not lucky enough to have been born white is undeniable. Correcting it, let alone simply accepting it, shouldn’t be a matter of debate. And, yet, here we are in 2020 still wondering why a statue for a slave trader or Confederate general is so offensive to some.

As much as this book angered me, it oddly and rather refreshingly offered up doses of hope. I am a firm believer in knowledge being a powerful weapon if wielded properly. I suspect Reni Eddo-Lodge shares that old adage. She provided me with a bit more information about racism and racist institutions in the UK, and by doing so allowed me to gain a bit of objectivity on institutions which have parallels in my own country, the US. She also understands how we all need to be gentle with ourselves as we disentangle and make sense of atrocities from our historical past in order to do the hard and necessary work of dismantling them as we move forward. This is painful as a process and incredibly uncomfortable at times. As long as we, each of us, does something with the knowledge we gain and the awareness necessary to be and live as antiracists, those small steps collectively can help us to achieve our goals. Let’s move forward rather than stand still in our despair and anger and frustration.

I will read this book again. More so, I will continue to think about every bit of this tiny, powerful book, and how I can be the change and do something and do better every single day.



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