Category: Essays

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Born a Crime

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor NoahWhen Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, but while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, though some of the stories are indeed laugh out loud funny. I actually read this book twice this year, once in print, and again as an audiobook, and would highly recommend it in either form.

Categories: Memoir, Humour

March: Book Two

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew AydinThis is a shout out to the entire March Trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis with former congressional aid Andrew Aydin, and art by Nate Powell. The trilogy captures Lewis’ experiences as a civil rights leader and organizer, before going on to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district for more than thirty years. In March: Book Two, Lewis and Aydin really master the structure of the frame narrative, which was a little stilted in the first volume. Lewis’ recollections of his time as an activist are framed by memories of Inauguration Day 2009, an especially striking juxtaposition with the violence that met peaceful civil rights protests. Book Two powerfully covers key events in the movement’s history, such as the lunch counter protests, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington.

Categories: Memoir, History, Graphic Novel

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenFeminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. In this collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists, editor Kelly Jensen has pulled together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, poems, and comics. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

Categories: Young Adult, Essays

A Mother’s Reckoning

ISBN 978-1-10190-276-9

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue KleboldIt is with caution that I include on this list a book that has stuck with me, perhaps even haunted me, since I read it this fall. Sue Klebold’s memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. When her son committed suicide in the school library following the rampage, she was left with more questions than answers, and a difficult public reckoning that continues to flare up to this day. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine, and it is for this reason that place a caveat on my recommendation of this title. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about this book.

Categories: Memoir

How to Survive a Plague

ISBN 978-0-30770-063-6

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David FranceThis history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. How to Survive a Plague also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read about a key aspect of LGBTQ+ history.

Categories: History, LGBTQ+

And that’s it for 2017. See you all  on the other side.


One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koulby Scaachi Koul

ISBN 978-1-250-12102-8

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.”

The daughter of Kashmiri Indian immigrants, Scaachi Koul was born in Canada, and grew up in Calgary, Alberta before moving to Toronto for university. There she became a writer and editor for BuzzFeed Canada, and started dating a white man more than a decade her senior who she kept secret from her parents for many years. She sparked on a storm on Twitter in 2016 when she put out a call for more diverse submissions. Her debut collection of essays addressing growing up at the intersection of two cultures, fighting for a place in either one, while constantly defending choices her parents do not understand or approve of. Koul approaches this subject with a biting humour that belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The intergenerational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. Her niece, nicknamed Raisin, also plays a prominent role, as Koul often reflects on her experiences through the lens of what she hopes or fears Raisin will face growing up as a young half-Indian woman.

Koul shares her complicated relationship with race in general, and skin colour in particular, a relationship that shifts depending whether she is in Canada or India. In Canada she is brown, yet just light enough to be ethnically vague, and constantly questioned about her identity. Racists casually toss the n-word at her, because “racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.” In India, her family is pleased with, and occasionally jealous of, her pallor. There, her relatives casually touch her skin, as if hoping the colour will rub off. Koul worries over the value her family places on this lightness, and particularly what this emphasis on whiteness will mean for her half-white niece. This push-pull is constantly at play as Koul tries to parse out her place between the two worlds.

The pieces in this collection range in tone, but even the essays that are pure humour have an undertow of cultural commentary. As she recounts getting stuck in a skirt in the fitting room of a clothing store where she used to work—and having to be cut out of it—Koul manages to perfectly capture the tendency to pin our hopes on the perfect wardrobe. Even as she is getting stuck, she thinks this is “The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes the way I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. I would exude a new confidence, it would smooth out the wrinkles in my body, it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past.” Body image is never far beneath the surface of these reflections, with race and gender only serving to further complicate matters. And this piece fits into the collection right alongside more serous pieces, such as the dissection surveillance as an aspect of rape culture, showcasing Koul’s diverse range and deft hand with a variety of subject matter.


You might also like I‘m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenEdited by Kelly Jensen

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

“Whether you identify as a feminist now or are curious about how people come to label themselves as feminists and own that identity, these pieces will help you begin your journey through the various paths, influences, and experiences toward feminism.”

Feminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. This collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists pulls together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. The contributors include men and women, cis and trans, from different backgrounds and social experiences, touching on everything from race, to mental health, to disability. The scrap-book style collection strikes a balance, speaking to teens at an introductory level without being condescending, while addressing everything from body image to sexuality to relationships and pop culture.

Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. One of my personal favourites was “The Choice is Yours” by Kody Keplinger, about her long-standing decision not to have kids. Keplinger ties the expectation for women to reproduce, and the charge of selfishness against those who voluntarily do not, into the way women are socialized to put the needs of others before their own. Like Keplinger, I first said the words “I don’t want to have kids” at a fairly young age and, like Keplinger, was immediately told “You’ll change your mind.” I wish I could bookmark this essay, and put Here We Are in the hands of my twelve-year-old self, because it would have meant everything to finally hear an adult woman say that my decision was both valid and viable. To borrow another quote from Ashley Hope Pérez’s essay, “It would have changed everything, it would have changed nothing, it would have made all the difference in the world.”

Fellow book lovers will probably also strongly relate to the essay “Reading Worthy Women.” In high school, Nova Ren Suma was excited to take the popular World Humanities course. The piece chronicles her heartbreaking realization that there were no women on the syllabus, and when she stayed after class to confront her teacher, he informed her that there were no women worthy of being on his syllabus. This kicked off a five year period of rebellion, which lasted through college, during which time, outside of school, she only read books written by women because “It’s not a silly pursuit to read beyond what’s handed to you, to seek out new voices and leap over the usual books everyone’s already talking about and see what you can find on your own.” The concept of pushing the boundaries of the canon is an important one, which is also present in Brenna Clarke Gray’s piece “Choose Your Own Adventure” about fandom as a feminist act.

Book Riot editor and Stacked writer Kelly Jensen has pulled together a collection of essays representing the many and diverse facets of feminism, creating an intersectional introduction to the movement. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, a list of “Ten Amazing Scientists (Who Also Happen to Be Women)”, as well as songs, poetry, and a list of the best girl friendships in fiction. While straight-up essays are the most common type of piece, Wendy Xu’s entry “The Princess and the Witch” is in the form of a comic, and there are several interviews as well. Most of the contributions are original, though some such as Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminism: Take Two” and Amandla Stenberg’s “Don’t Cash Crop My Corn Rows” are either reproductions or adaptations of previously published material. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Cover image for Scratch by Manjula Martin Edited by Manjula Martin

ISBN 978-1-5011-3457-9

“Writing for free looked like work. It felt like work. But it was the illusion of work, a fun house mirror reflection.” –Nina McLaughlin  

There are many books about writing as an art form. Library and book store shelves overflow with them. And there are some books about the business of writing, too, such as how to become a freelance writer, or find an agent. But the discussion of writing as an art form predominates, and discussing money remains a bit taboo. In a selection of essays and interview with writers from a variety of fields and at different stages of their careers, Manjula Martin aims to peel back the layers of polite obfuscation and create some transparency about the business and financial aspects of the American writer’s market. Divided into three sections, Scratch takes readers from the “Early Days” of trying to break into the industry, through the “Daily Grind,” of being a working writer, and on to that dreamed of “Someday” when the young writer has finally made it.

In reading this collection, I was struck by the varied and individual business and financial situations faced by the authors. For some writers, the pressure of having to support themselves and their families by writing was crushing. But that same pressure turned others into lean, mean, writing machines. In Malinda Lo’s words, “financial necessity can be extremely clarifying.” In her own contribution to the collection, “The Best Work in Literature,” Manjula Martin writes about how all her non-writing jobs have contributed to her work as a writer. As she puts it, “all this unwriterly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist.” On the flip side, in her essay “The Insider,” Kate McKean chronicles how building her career as a literary agent sapped most of her energy for many years, taking her away from her original dream of being a writer. With thirty-three authors included in the collection, Scratch can encompass quite a wide range of the experiences of American writers.

One of the stand-out pieces in the book is “Faith, Hope, and Credit,” featuring a conversation with Cheryl Strayed. Incidentally, it was the online excerpt of this piece that first drew my attention to Scratch. In it, Strayed and Martin discuss what a $100 000 advance ends up looking like in real life, after it is taxed, after the agent takes a portion, and then paid out in four installments. Suddenly $100 000 doesn’t seem like that much money anymore, when parceled out over several years. And even while Wild was hitting and staying on the best seller list, Strayed’s rent check bounced during her promotional tour, because she was just that broke. Wild would eventually make Strayed very comfortable, but when it first became successful, Strayed had already spent the advance paying off the bills she incurred writing the book, but the royalties hadn’t started to come in yet. It is a good reminder that a writer’s financial situation is not always evident from the outside.

Of course, being paid to write can become a sort of insatiable obsession, as documented by Rachel Maddux in her essay “On Staying Hungry.” Many aspiring writers would define having made it as the point where you can live on your writing, but as Maddux points out, the goal posts are always moving. On the experience of finally landing her first cover story, she writes, “I expected to experience a sort of transcendent satisfaction, or at least some palpable sense of leveling up. Instead, my stomach just grumbled, my appetite already recalibrating.” As Alexander Chee puts it in his piece, “there is no ‘made it’ point. There is only ever the making of work.” And there is always more work you could be doing, or chasing. There is always another next level.

The business of becoming a working writer isn’t an easy one, as new writers try to navigate the world of agents, advances, publishing houses, and freelancing. Any agent or editor seems like a good choice for a hungry, unpublished writer, but there are several horror stories and cautionary tales in Scratch about the fatality of the wrong fit. In “Five Years in the Wilderness,” Cari Luna writes about landing an agent for her first novel, which they were ultimately unable to sell. When Luna wrote her second novel, entirely different from the first, her agent didn’t feel that she could represent it, and they parted ways. At the time, this was a crushing blow, but in retrospect, Luna writes, “I see now that it was a very kind thing for my first agent to do, to recognize we weren’t a good editorial fit and set me free. Because I never would have walked away on my own.” Still more sobering is Kiese Laymon’s account of being jerked around by his editor for four years, destroying his health in the process.

Scratch is obviously most useful for, and aimed at, writers, but the main message of transparency and information sharing can be extrapolated to other creative professions. And folks in professions related to writing, such as librarians and book sellers, can definitely benefit from a better understanding of how writers are—or aren’t—being paid. The focus is on traditional revenue streams—publishing houses, magazines, teaching gigs, and speaking tours—but Kickstarter is mentioned in Laura Goode’s piece about funding the independent film she wrote. Self-publishing goes largely unaddressed. Overall, Scratch provides a good idea of the basics of the business of traditional American publishing as it stands today.


You might also like MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach

The Clothing of Books

the-clothing-of-booksby Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

ISBN 978-0-525-43275-3

“Like a translation, a cover can be faithful to the book, or it can be misleading. In theory, like a translation, it should be in the service of the book, but this dynamic isn’t always the case.”

When you pick up a book, the first thing you see is the jacket. In most cases, the author of the book has had little or no input into the design. The words do not belong to the writer, but to the publishing house’s copy writers, charged with marketing the book, and to the other writers or critics who have praised the book in blurbs. With the exception of their name, and possibly the title, the author is nowhere to be found. In The Clothing of Books, Jhumpa Lahiri interrogates this tension between form and content, both from her early perspective as a reader, and her later experience as a writer.

The Clothing of Books was originally delivered as the keynote address at the Festival degli Scrittori in 2015. The speech was written and delivered in Italian. As chronicled in her book In Other Words, after completing her 2012 novel The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri moved with her family to Rome, and largely gave up reading and writing in English to focus on her passion for the Italian language. In that book, she also expressed her dislike for translating her own work into English. The Clothing of Books was translated into English by Lahiri’s husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.

Clocking in at only seventy pages, The Clothing of Books is really an essay published as a small gift book, with a price tag of $7.95 USD. However, it is a very cute little book, cleverly designed by Joan Wong, who also designed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s little book We Should All Be Feminists, as well as the paperback cover for Americanah. The cover flaps fold out to form the two sides of a double breasted jacket, with buttons illustrated on the front flap, and button holes on the back. Combined with graphic effects that mimic stitching and textured fabric, the book looks as if it has been literally clothed for its debut.

Inside, Lahiri contemplates how jackets affected her own reading life. With a librarian for a father, Lahiri borrowed many of her books, which were mostly stripped of their dust jackets before being circulated. With these “naked books,” the author’s words were the first thing she encountered. She also expresses this preference for her own books: “I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me.” Yet she also acknowledges that a naked book is “incomplete, in some ways inaccessible. It lacks a door through which to enter the text. It lacks a face.” At used book sales, jacketless books often languish, unsold.

On the flip side, Lahiri examines covers, both those that fit, and those that do not. She contrasts individual designs with those for part of a European publishing series—American readers, think like the Modern Library, but with contemporary authors rather than classics—regarding the latter as a sort of uniform. Contemplating the relationship between Virginia Woolf, and her sister Vanessa Bell, who painted her covers, Lahiri notes that a designer does not even necessarily have to read the book to capture it, as Bell did not, taking only a summary from her sister. She also reflects on the stereotypes of India that have been evident in designs for various editions of her own books, even those set entirely in America. Taken together, the two angles form a fascinating, if brief, meditation on the role of the jacket in the life of a book.

You Can’t Touch My Hair

Cover image for You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinsonby Phoebe Robinson

ISBN 978-0-14-312920-2

“In fact, throughout the Obama years, there has been, at the very best, resistance to change, and at the very worst, a palpable regression in the way the country views and handles—or more accurately refuses to handle—race.”

Phoebe Robinson is a writer and stand-up comedian, as well as the co-host of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of humourous essays that draw on Robinson’s experiences as a black woman, including “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend,” and “Uppity,” an essay that explores coded language and white guilt. In a style replete with pop-culture references and internet slang, Robinson recounts her relationship with her hair, highlights black hair in the media over the past thirty years, and addresses some of the racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis.

Robinson’s essays hit a range of tones, from mostly humourous to mostly serious. I read the book in print form, but I often found myself wondering if some parts of the book would have been better on the audio version, which Robinson performs. Her more serious essays hit home hard in print form, but delivery is a huge part of comedy. I listened to a couple episodes of 2 Dope Queens after I finished You Can’t Touch My Hair, and suddenly I could much better imagine how Robinson would deliver the material she had written. This might be less of a problem for people who are already familiar with Robinson’s comedy and then pick up her book, but this was my introduction to her. However some of the pieces are definitely best suited to print form, for example the second essay is about black hair in the media, and includes a lot of photos.

Two of the more serious pieces that hit hard were “Uppity” and “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman.” In “Uppity,” Robinson recounts an acting job where she was called uppity by the white director when she asked for a minute to review her lines. After she called out the director, he apologized so profusely, and displayed his guilt so dramatically that Robinson wound up being responsible for consoling him for his racist behaviour. “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman” is a bit meandering to start with, but ends up being just as loaded. Robinson admits that the piece was hard to write, but when she eventually gets down to the point, her story about being the only black student in the senior thesis workshop of her creative writing program is gut-wrenching. The workshop normally enforced a very strict rule that the person whose work was being critiqued had to listen silently to the criticism without defending themselves. But when another student debuted a very racist master/slave romance and Robinson had to give her critique, the white student who had written the piece cried and tried to defend her work, while the rest of the class and the teacher looked on.

The piece that made me laugh the hardest was “Casting Calls for People of Color That Were Not Written by People of Color,” which highlights the absurdities faced by non-white actors. The casting calls are parodied examples that highlight the different types of clichés that are common in roles for people of color created by white writers and directors. I think part of the reason this piece works so well is that it is clearly meant to be delivered in print form, whereas some of the other essays, while funny, seemed like they were intended for verbal delivery but adapted to written form. Overall I am torn about whether to recommend print or audio for this title, as it really is a bit of a hybrid. If you are in it for the comedy, I would say that audio is definitely the route to go.


You might also like I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

I’m Judging You

Cover image for I'm Judging You by Luvvie Ajayiby Luvvie Ajayi

ISBN 978-1-62779-606-4

“Racism in all its many flavors is easier to recognize when it’s KKK-style Original Recipe. But when the form it takes isn’t slurs and hate speech thrown in your face, people don’t always want to see it, acknowledge it, or understand how much it affects the everyday lives of others.”

Sometimes I feel like I suck at being a human, more specifically, an adult human. But when I look around, I can see that I am not alone in the suck, and that we all have some work to do to be better, to ourselves and one another. Luvvie Ajayi, the blogger known for is on the case, here to side-eye and criticize our myriad failings as individuals and as a society. However, all of the material for I’m Judging You is new to this book, and is not made up of edited blog posts. With humour and self-deprecation, Ajayi tackles everything from toxic friendships to social media oversharing to rape culture and our tendency to treat Africa as a monolith.

Ajayi starts out by judging herself, fully admitting that she is prone to being terribly and unforgivably late for social events. This willingness to include herself sets her up as a good sport, and she uses the term “we” in a lot of places throughout the book. The first few essays are light and purely humourous, dealing with stingy friends who don’t want to pay their share of the restaurant bill, and the several types of bad friends (the Frenemy, the Enabler, the Lannister, etc.) But the subject matter, while always approached with a good sense of humour, gets serious quickly from there.

By the fourth piece, “Under the Knife,” Ajayi is discussing beauty standards and their intersection with race. She is still in it for the humour—she starts out with anal bleaching, after all—but moves into a more substantive discussion of bleaching creams for making black people look lighter, and a cultural obsession with plastic surgery so extreme that women have died from having concrete filler injected into their bottoms by unlicensed plastic surgeons. She goes on to tackle racism more broadly, calls out those who use Christianity as an excuse for homophobia, and discusses the need for intersectional feminism, among other topics. While the discussions can be entry level, they are approached with humour, and though many readers will already be familiar with Ajayi from her blog, others like me will be meeting her for the first time with I’m Judging You.

Marketing has put a bit of a self-help spin on the book, subtitling it “The Do-Better Manual.” But Ajayi is less about telling you what to do—let alone how to do it—and more about giving some serious side eye to the way we currently do things. Why are we so thirsty for fame that we don’t care what we’re famous for? Should you ever post pictures of Grandma’s open casket funeral on social media? Have you washed your bra more than once in the last year? If you do better for having read this book, it will be less because Luvvie laid out a plan of reform, and more because she made you felt shame for your inconsiderate or gross behaviour and vow to be a better human going forward.

I’m Judging You is best read over several days, a few essays at a time. While the humour makes the book go down easy, and you could finish this in a sitting or two, the essays are more enjoyable when you spread them out a bit rather than swallowing the book whole. Ajayi’s humourous commentary puts the heart in the book, but she goes out on a serious note, imploring readers to speak up, and donate where they can to make the world a better place. This light-hearted but sincere call to do better was exactly what I needed to start the new year.

The Fire Next Time

Cover image for The Fire Next Time by James Baldwinby James Baldwin

ISBN 978-0-679-74472-6

“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

Originally published in 1963, The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, the relatively short “My Dungeon Shook,” and the longer “Down at the Cross,” which makes up most of the volume. By the time it was published, Baldwin was an expatriate, living abroad in France, both a product of America, and apart from it.  “My Dungeon Shook” takes the form of a letter to Baldwin’s nephew and namesake, in which he addresses what it means to be a black man in the United States. “Down at the Cross” recounts Baldwin’s ardent conversion to Christianity as a teenager, and his subsequent exit from the church, using his own journey to examine the role of faith in the black community.

“My Dungeon Shook” is a heart-rending piece that is all the more powerful for its brevity. Baldwin addresses his young nephew with such unadorned directness. It is an honesty that seems desperate to impart anything he can that will help the younger James understand and navigate his experience. What is most startling is perhaps how relevant it still feels today. Some of the specifics have changed—there are no more colored bathrooms or water fountains, no dividing line on the bus—but black families are still having these conversations with their children every day.

Baldwin has an eloquent and unique style that makes me imagine him as a powerful orator. I can certainly picture him as a young lay-preacher, given ecstatic sermons in “Down at the Cross.” He has a startling clarity about what pushed him into the church, and what held him there, even as he describes it as like “being in the theatre. I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.” He later turns his attention on the Nation of Islam, arguing that the movement’s appeal among black people stemmed from a similar fear and lack of control. This second piece is looser than “My Dungeon Shook”, and sprawls much more broadly towards the end.

The Fire Next Time is a classic work that I picked up less to review, and more to add context to my recent reading, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. I can certainly see more clearly the roots of Coates’ work, and how Baldwin’s style informed his own. They share a skepticism about religion, but interestingly I think that Coates is perhaps the more pessimistic of the two. Works that are deemed classics always seem to gather a certain aura of gravitas and inaccessibility, but Baldwin pulled me right in, and I can see why his writing possesses an enduring appeal.


Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderYou might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander