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If you’ve read bookconscious for a long time you know I was a regular listener of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. As they were preparing to go off the air, Michael and Ann recommended other podcasts for their fans and one was The Readers. I listened to Episode 171 a few weeks ago, in which Simon and Thomas were sharing their summer reading plans. I was especially intrigued by Simon’s description of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I decided it to check it out, and I am so glad I did — I loved it. So much so that I suggested it to my new book group on Monday, and happily, they chose it for our August read.

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people in a city that is beginning to fall under the influence of militants as the book opens. Nadia, scandalously for a young woman in her city, has broken with her family and lives alone, while Saeed lives with his parents. As the various parts of the city fall and services are cut off, they find it harder to see each other. I don’t want to give away everything, so I won’t say how everyone in their city gets on, but eventually, Nadia and Saeed decide to leave.

What intrigued me is that the way to leave the city is through doors. Ordinary doors. Saeed and Nadia leave through one in a dentist’s and end up in Mykonos. Eventually they get to London, which has been overrun, “some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that.” People not just from Saeed and Nadia’s country but many other places, drawn by reports from other migrants living in places with better opportunities, move through doors to try and make a better life. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move  . . . .”

Exit West is certainly about human migration, the refugee crisis, and what happens when people must choose to leave their homes.  But it’s also the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Some of what they go through brings them closer, but they guard their feelings about some experiences, and find themselves less able to share them, or even to talk lightly. I don’t think I’ve read a lovelier description of a couple growing apart.

The book is also an examination of faith, which Saeed never loses. He prays, as his mother taught him when he was a boy, and when he and Nadia are finally settled he is drawn to a “place of worship” — Hamid never says mosque, although there are indications that Saeed is Muslim (he and his father go to Friday prayers together, for example). The preacher at Saeed’s new place of worship is African American. Here is how Hamid writes about that: “While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance, for society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils, and to which Saeed in particular was attracted, since at a place of worship where he had gone one Friday the communal prayer was led by a man who came from this tradition and spoke of this tradition, and Saeed had found . . . this man’s words to be full of soul-soothing wisdom.”

At my book club (discussing The Underground Railroad) we got into a conversation about why people suffering at the hands of other people seem to turn to religion. One person suggested religion preys on the downcast and oppressed, but I countered that in my view, religion offers a vision of justice and peace that isn’t fully manifest in the world yet, but is possible. I should have added, that hope can be magnified in the acts of love carried out by believers who represent all that’s possible, and conversely, crushed by fundamentalism and intolerance. In Exit West Saeed and Nadia lose the place they love to militant fundamentalism and Saeed finds his way in a community run by a preacher who “worked to feed and shelter his congregants and teach them English.”

And he prays: “Saeed . . . valued the discipline of it, the fact that it was a code, a promise he had made, and that he stood by.” Now as a refugee in a strange country, “Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” That slayed me, but Hamid goes on:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to . . . .”

I find that very beautiful. As I typed it I realized it’s also a style that may not to be everyone’s taste — a sentence that takes up nearly a whole page of this small book. But even if you are usually a fan of tidier prose, give this book a chance. It’s short but expansive. A simple story but one that provides a great deal to ponder when you get to the end. I’ve been thinking about refugees and and how things could be better and whether where we live makes us who we are, and what it takes to get to that sense of shared humanity through prayer that Saeed has, and whether humans really have potential to build a better world or when starting over are they doomed to repeat the same patterns that shattered their communities in the first place, and why some people can change and others can’t, and whether the African American experience “made possible all future transplanted soils” and why anyone becomes fundamentalist or even listens to fundamentalists . . . . And I haven’t looked at a door the same way since, either. Wouldn’t it be so cool to go through one and end up elsewhere?

I’ve read some good books so far this summer but this may be the best.

 

 

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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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I’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

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