Category: Non-Fiction

The Great Influenza

Cover image for The Great Influenza by John M. Barryby John M. Barry

ISBN 9781101200971

“It seemed now as if there had never been life before the epidemic. The disease informed every action of every person in the city.”

On the heels of The Great War—now better known as World War I—a much more rapacious killer swept the globe, leaving a death toll that dwarfed the war in its invisible wake. As the influenza pandemic raged, medical scientists practically took up residence in their laboratories, seeking the elusive pathogen that was piling up bodies on their doorsteps. Wave after wave broke over the globe, but still the cause, a treatment, a vaccine, remained just beyond grasp. Recently modernized, American medical science clashed with nature and fell short, despite the concerted efforts of investigators such as Paul A. Lewis, Oswald Avery, and the team of William H. Park and Anna Wessel Williams. John M. Barry combines war, disease, and history of medicine in this account of 1918 flu pandemic, which remains one of the deadliest in human history.

The Great Influenza is broadly interested in the history of medicine, and specifically the evolution of the American medical tradition, and how it came to be transformed and modernized, finally becoming a scientific endeavour. Barry goes so far back as the Hippocratic and Galenic medical traditions, tracing progress through Paracelsus and Vesalius before discussing the stagnation of medical progress, and America’s late arrival to the scientific medical revolution. He spends significant time on the establishment of Johns Hopkins in 1876, the first modern medical laboratory in the United States to be modeled after state of the art institutions in Europe. The hospital and medical school would be added later, and for the first time prospective doctors in the United States would be required to have a college degree, as well as be fluent in French and German for admission. The establishment and contributions of the Rockefeller Institute also receive significant attention, if not quite as much detail as Johns Hopkins. This contextualization takes up about the first quarter of the book before Barry turns his attention to the pandemic proper.

Barry begins in Kansas in January and February of 1918, following Dr. Loring Miner, who observed an unusually violent influenza among his rural patients that winter which may have been the forerunner of what is now thought of as the first spring wave of a pandemic that would ultimately take as many as 100 million lives. He then turns his attention to Camp Funston, also located in Kansas. Although he briefly acknowledges that the exact origin of the outbreak is not proven, he considers this the most likely, and proceeds from there. From army camp to laboratory to naval shipyard to community spread, Barry follows the pathogen, and the people who were trying to identify it, and create a treatment or vaccine. Barry’s account of the pandemic is largely Amerocentric. (For a book with a slightly more global perspective, I would recommend Pale Rider by Laura Spinney.) Late in the book Barry makes a brief circuit of the globe, with cursory accounts of the death tolls in various locales, but this is not the focus of the book. On the home front, he uses Philadelphia as a particular case study. The city was home to a naval shipyard, and held the Liberty Loan Parade to raise money for war bonds in late September of 1918, just as the deadly second wave was breaking upon the city. The results were catastrophic, almost apocalyptic.

At times Barry seems to wish he was writing a biography, with figures such as William Henry Welch, Paul A. Lewis, and—to a lesser degree—Oswald Avery occupying large amounts of his attention, even taking time to detail lulls in their careers when they were not making significant contributions. Welch, though not much of a laboratory scientist himself, was a key player in the transformation of the American medical establishment, and an important mentor and power broker in the field. Both Lewis and Avery spent the war and the years that followed in the laboratory investigating influenza, but neither would identify the virus, and their most signal scientific accomplishments would be in other areas. Lewis would be remembered largely for his work on polio, and Avery for his ground breaking discoveries regarding DNA. Both the war and the pandemic would pass, and it would be the 1930s before the virus was at last discovered. This receives only cursory attention in the final section.

A significant cautionary note that emerges from The Great Influenza is the danger of government misinformation and inaction. Because of the war, information about influenza was tightly repressed, as it was believed to have a negative influence on morale. As Barry puts it, “What officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured.”  In practice, the cognitive dissonance of seeing friends and neighbours dying all around while the press and government continued to print reassurances that there was nothing to be concerned about proved significantly more destructive to the social fabric. Trust eroded, and in the absence of reliable information, people simply had to fend for themselves. Read in the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this makes The Great Influenza a chilling combination of reassurance and despair. It—which is to say the disease itself—could be so much worse, and yet more than a hundred years later, we are still making so many of the same mistakes.

You might also like Spillover by David Quammen

The American Plague

Cover image for The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosbyby Molly Caldwell Crosby

ISBN 9781440620461

“Nature had found the perfect place to hide the yellow fever virus. It seeded itself in the blood, blooming yellow and running red.”

Long before the idea that mosquitoes could spread disease was scientifically proven and medically accepted, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were wreaking havoc, spreading from West Africa to the Caribbean and up the Mississippi River Valley on the gossamer wings of aedes aegypti. People who had never been in contact with anyone who was ill mysteriously succumbed, as if the disease was in the very air. In The American Plague, journalist Molly Caldwell Crosby chronicles how yellow fever arrived in North America, the devastating effects of an outbreak, the efforts to uncover how the disease was spread, and finally the journey to a vaccine.

The American Plague has two main subjects; the 1878 yellow fever outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, and the work of Walter Reed, James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte on the Yellow Fever Board in Havana during the Spanish-American War. A Memphian herself, Crosby begins with the Memphis outbreak, a devastating event that killed at least 5000 people, in a city with a population of only 40, 000—half of whom fled at the onset of the epidemic. There were not enough doctors and nurses to care for the sick, and medical volunteers arriving in Memphis were often stricken by yellow fever within days of arrival, adding to the burden. With deep access to the local history, Crosby pulls out fascinating details, such as the caretaker’s daughter who kept the cemetery’s record book, writing down each name and ringing the bell for the dead, until she succumbed to yellow fever herself.

Economic imperatives and subsequent devastation surround this narrative, beginning with the slave trade, which was the vehicle that brought yellow fever from West Africa to the Americas, satisfying the thirst for free labour at the cost of human life. Crosby recounts how yellow fever would typically arrive in New Orleans via the Caribbean, and then make its way up the Mississippi River Valley. Port cities were caught between the desire to prevent disease and the economic benefits of not quarantining incoming ships. Cargoes such as fruit from the Caribbean could be destroyed by a quarantine. The Memphis Board of Health voted against a quarantine in 1878, only to have the city economically destroyed anyway; the outbreak was so severe that the city was bankrupted, and its charter revoked. I found this particularly striking in the midst of the fraught economic debates currently surrounding COVID-19 containment measures.

After illustrating the devastating effects of yellow fever on both human life and the American economy, Crosby shifts her attention to the efforts to discover the cause of yellow fever, and create a vaccine against it. When the Yellow Fever Board was assembled in Havana in 1900, they were building on the work of Dr. Juan Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor who had proposed the mosquito as the vector for yellow fever two decades earlier, to much ridicule. What is most interesting here, however, is the various controversies surrounding the work. Members of the board experimented upon themselves, and on army volunteers, but also carefully recruited and groomed new Spanish immigrants to Cuba, using large financial incentives to get them to consent to participating in the experiments. Army doctor Jesse Lazear, who was the head of the mosquito work, died of yellow fever which is now suspected to have been self-inflicted, but was covered up at the time. James Carroll eventually died in 1907 of the lasting complications of yellow fever contracted in the course of his work in Havana. From there Crosby goes on to the work of Max Theiler, who invented a vaccine for yellow fever, infecting thousands of American soldiers with hepatitis in the process—although to be fair to Theiler, he expressed his concerns about the widespread use of this vaccine and was overruled in favour of ensuring that American soldiers deploying for World War II were inoculated.

Although Crosby dedicates a significant amount of the book to medical investigations, I would describe this account of yellow fever as more cultural than epidemiological. She doesn’t delve deeply into any of the virology or the nitty gritty scientific details. Although she briefly mentions that the difficulty in proving the mosquito hypothesis was a matter of the timing of the reproductive cycle of the virus, she never does get around to fully explaining the viremic window for infection between mosquitoes and humans, or a more than cursory exploration of the zoonotic origins of the disease. Nevertheless, The American Plague is an interesting look at how one tiny virus significantly shaped the course of American history, and I would recommend it for those more interested in the human impacts of pandemic than the science surrounding it.

More pandemic reads:

Spillover by David Quammen

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluoby Ijeoma Oluo

ISBN 978-1-58005-882-7

“These conversations will never become easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen future pain. They will never be risk free, but they will always be worth it.”

With grace, patience, and occasional humour, Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” and “Is police brutality really about race?” The chapters do not need to be read strictly in order, but it is helpful to begin with the first five, which are about concepts and definitions, before digging into the twelve chapters that address specific issues.

I first read this book back in March 2018, shortly after it was published. I ended up naming it one of my top non-fiction reads of 2018. At that time, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the excellent Bahni Turpin. However, I don’t usually write reviews of audiobooks, since I’m not making the kind of notes that I usually take when reading a print book, which form the basis for my reviews. Last fall, I picked up a copy of the new paperback edition, but didn’t actually dig into at that time.  Recently however, I’ve been talking to folks about this book a lot, and been wishing I had written a more substantial review, so the time seemed ripe for a reread.

 So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting those readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive or angry. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere but the college level, and often not even there. I never took an Indigenous Studies or Women’s Studies class during my post-secondary education, and I’m not even sure my university offered a critical race theory course. This essential knowledge is treated like an optional elective.

In the first chapter, Oluo writes that “these are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia their parents and teachers told them it was.” And while that was undoubtedly true when she wrote it, it strikes the same note with a deeper resonance in 2020, when many people are opening themselves up to talking and thinking about ideas they might never have entertained before. While this book has a chapter on police brutality, for example, it doesn’t have one about abolishing the police. Even just two years ago, that wasn’t a topic that fit into a 101 conversation about race and racism, but now entire cities are having it about the future of their police departments.

Oluo weaves in personal stories, often at the beginning of the chapter as an illustration of the concept she is about to unpack. Sometimes, such as the chapter on police brutality, it is an example of oppression from her own life as a self-identified fat, queer black woman. But other times, she uses her privilege as an illustration as well, such as the story of the picnic on Capitol Hill, or her college education, which qualified her for jobs that had nothing to do with her political science degree, and earned her higher pay in those jobs, while Black and Latinx colleagues with more experience but no degree were ineligible for promotion. By openly exploring and acknowledging her own privileges without defensiveness, she invites readers to do the same.

This is a book that is less for your unabashedly racist uncle, and more a book for talking with the aunt, cousin, or friend who thinks that they aren’t racist. What Oluo unpacks over the course of seventeen chapters is that racism is less about the beliefs of individual racists, and more about the systems of power that undergird and reinforce those beliefs, causing them to persist generation to generation even as explicit adherence to concepts like eugenics or Manifest Destiny fades. We are racist not because we as individuals are bad people, but because we operate in a system that is larger than any one individual’s beliefs or actions. Individualism blinds us to the larger patterns playing out in society. Again and again, I found myself writing the words “intent vs. harm” into the margins of this book. We desperately want to believe that we cannot be racist if we do not intend to be, but intent does not mitigate harm. If we fear being called racist more than we fear our unexamined racism, the conversation can never progress. If we are too afraid to speak, how will we ever take action?

The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author, as well as a discussion guide. In the preface, the author takes responsibility for some of the short-comings of the first edition, such as the inconsistent terminology she used around Indigenous people. She also moves to more explicitly acknowledge the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term intersectionality to highlight the need for feminism to explicitly consider the experiences of women of colour. Notably, the discussion guide includes not just discussion questions, but also principles for having a safe and productive discussion, such as “do not allow white group members to treat their discomfort as harm done to them,” and “don’t allow people of color to be turned into priests, therapists, or dictionaries for white group members.” These are valuable additions to the book, and I would recommend the newer edition if you’re planning to pick this one up.

You might also like The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Nonbinary and Genderqueer Reads

Today I’ve got mini-reviews four books by and about nonbinary and genderqueer people, including two young adult novels, and two memoirs, including one graphic memoir. I’m part of a monthly bring your own book club with other library workers, and this month’s theme was “read a book by an author whose gender is different than yours.” Having read a lot of books by men already in my life, I decided to focus on books by nonbinary people instead!

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (they/them)

Cover image for I Wish You All the BestThis YA novel is a classic coming out narrative, but for gender rather than sexuality. Ben is thrown out by their parents after coming out as nonbinary, and is taken in by their estranged older sister, Hannah. Ben starts the last semester of senior year at a new school, where they decide not to come out as nonbinary because of the fallout from the fight with their parents. At the new school, Ben falls for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan. This quiet contemporary focuses on relationships and acceptance, including Ben’s growing feelings for Nathan, reconnecting with their sister, and their decision about whether or not to forgive their parents. One thing that I Wish You All the Best does really well is highlight just how unnecessarily gendered language can be in small, quotidian ways that creep into everything. From binary checkboxes on forms, to endearments like “little bro” or “dude” and “my prince,” gendered language is a minefield that is slowly killing Ben with a thousand thoughtless cuts.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (he/they)

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderWhereas I Wish You All the Best is a coming out story, Felix Ever After follows the story of Felix Love, who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the nonbinary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online. Felix’s best friend Ezra is the light of this book, and he reminded me a great deal of Nathan from I Wish You All the Best.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir)

Cover image for Gender Queer by Maia KobabeThis graphic memoir follows Maia Kobabe on eir exploration of gender, and how e came to understand that e was nonbinary, with colours by eir sister, Phoebe Kobabe. The book recounts eir confusion about increasingly gendered expectations in childhood, such as differences in acceptable swimwear for young boys and girls. As e gets older, there is an increasing focus on body dysmorphia, particularly body horror related to menstruation and gynecological exams. E confesses to secretly harbouring a guilty wish for breast cancer as an excuse for a mastectomy. Unaware of the nonbinary option, as a teen Kobabe wished for the ability to switch between genders at will, like in the cartoon Ranma ½. The memoir comes to an open ending, as Kobabe has realized eir nonbinary identity, but is still struggling with being open about it in various settings, such as the art class e teaches. The book concludes: “A note to my parents: Though I have struggled with being your daughter, I am so, so glad I am your child.”

Sissy by Jacob Tobia (they/them)

Cover image for Sissy by Jacob TobiaJacob Tobia is a gender nonconforming writer, producer, and performer based in Los Angeles. Sissy is their memoir about growing up in North Carolina, and their years coming into their gender identity and expression as a scholarship student at Duke University. Tobia is perhaps best known for their 2012 run in five inch high heels across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise money for the Ali Forney Center after it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Tobia has a loud love-me-or-leave-me style that you will either jive with, or not; in their conclusion they write “to this day, your divine conviction in your own self-love makes you kinda arrogant and a little bit of an asshole,” apparently aware of the inevitable dichotomy. Tobia likes humour and extended metaphors; for example, they propose that instead of the closet, the metaphor for coming out should be a snail coming out of its shell. Their tone is a whiplash combination of earnestness and irreverence, mixing insights about gender and socialization with jokes, dropping insights about toxic masculinity in the same breath as a dick joke. Tobia loudly pushes for more trans stories that go beyond the traditional gender binary, using their own struggles with their parents, their church, and their university to pave the way.

Browse more LGBTQ+ reads

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover image for Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kellyby Helena Kelly

ISBN 9781524732110

“Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary as anything thing that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. By and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.”

When Jane Austen died in July 1817, she had lived only forty-one years, a quiet life amongst her family and friends that does not make for a remarkable biography. She was unmarried, and lived with her widowed mother and spinster sister, in a cottage on the grounds of the estate of one of her many brothers. Between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, England had been at war for most of her life, and she never had the chance to travel outside the country. In accordance with decorum, she did not publish under her own name during her lifetime. With such a scanty biography, and a family that was heavily invested in controlling her image after her death, Oxford professor Helena Kelly argues that to truly understand Austen’s life, we must look to her published works, because “it is impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of words and reveal nothing of how she thinks or what she believes.” It is to Austen’s six novels that Kelly turns to understand the author’s true thoughts and opinions, bolstered by her letters and Kelly’s knowledge of English history. But while many people find Austen’s novels to be light romances, Kelly argues that we must read more deeply to unearth the true thoughts and less orthodox opinions of a woman who mocked the monarchy, criticized the clergy, and thumbed her nose at the titled aristocracy.

Kelly begins with Northanger Abbey, likely the first of Austen’s novels to be sold, and the last to be published, for the publisher that initially bought the rights never actually printed it. She later reacquired the rights, but it was not published until her after death, leaving open the question of whether she wanted this youthful manuscript to be read. Each chapter begins with a biographical sketch from the life of Jane Austen, showing where she was and what was happening in her life at the time she was working on each of her books, though this is an inexact business, as her early books in particular were likely worked on over many years. But the main part of each chapter is given over to close reading of Austen’s work, looking for evidence of her engagement with the radical ideology of the time in which she lived. Interestingly, Kelly never applies the word “radical” to Austen directly; she reserves this for political thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, and Mary Wollestonecraft, and once applies it to Austen’s most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennett.

When the characters from all of Austen’s books are taken together, as Kelly does here, it is clear that Austen did not think much of the nobility or clergy. Most of Austen’s characters are untitled gentry, but characters such as Sir William Lucas and Lady Catherine de Burgh are figures of fun, and the Reverend Mr. Collins still more so. The Reverend Mr. Elton of Emma is hardly better in his pretensions and flirtations, and Edmund Bertram, the hero of Mansfield Park, openly admits the he is going into the Church out of convenience rather than any sense of vocation; he knows that nepotism will provide him with a living. Altogether, Kelly makes a strong case that for the daughter of a clergyman, Austen did not have a great deal of respect for England’s traditional institutions and authorities.

It is also clear that Kelly’s view of Austen’s novels is not particularly romantic. In her reading of Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that the math does not add up in the story Colonel Brandon tells Elinor about whether he is the father of his ward. He never outright denies the relationship, but seems to disavow it through his timeline. Kelly points out that the fortune that saved the estate Colonel Brandon inherited from his brother rightly belongs to his ward, since it was essentially stolen from her mother when Brandon’s father abused his guardianship and forced her to marry his older brother. In her close reading of Emma, she makes the case that Mr. Knightley is engaged in an enclosure of the commons, something that was happening at an extremely rapid pace during Austen’s lifetime, with serious consequences for the poor who relied on those resources. Kelly further suggests that by marrying Emma and Isabella, the Knightley brothers will eventually be able to complete an enclosure plan for Highbury and Donwell that the conservative and change-averse Mr. Woodhouse would be unlikely to agree to. Once married, their property belongs to their husbands when they eventually inherit Hartfield. Austen’s other heroes do not fare much better under Kelly’s scrutiny.

Helena Kelly knows her English history, and uses it to illuminate the context of Austen’s novels beyond the drawing rooms in which they take place. If her theories are sometimes far-fetched, they are always thought-provoking, and are looking to tie back to that history. “Read Jane’s novels,” Kelly implores, “they’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” No doubt I will be thinking of her ideas the next time I revisit the texts, even as I doubt I will be taking some of her theories to heart. 

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn 

Hood Feminism

Cover image for Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendallby Mikki Kendall

ISBN 9780525560555

“The patriarchy isn’t dead, nor is it the same everywhere, and calling for solutions without addressing the impact of class and race evades the real problem. As a society, we face a vicious tangle of income inequality exacerbated by unchecked bigotry that has been allowed to seep into every community.”

Meriam-Webster defines feminism as the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” But author and activist Mikki Kendall argues that a number of very fundamental and basic needs have been overlooked as feminist issues by mainstream feminism in favour of more specialized interests that only benefit a small subset of already relatively privileged women who have long been at the head of the movement. Arguing that “internal conflicts are how feminism grows and becomes more effective,” Kendall lays out these oversights, and centers the women who have been left behind at the heart of her idea of what the feminist agenda should focus on going forward. This is intersectional feminism, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but Kendall dubs it “hood feminism,” because for her the glaring oversights of the mainstream feminist movement were made readily evident by her own history as a poor, black woman growing up in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Chicago. In Hood Feminism, she lays bare the gaps, in the hopes that it will help us chart a more inclusive way forward.

Kendall begins by rejecting trickle down feminism, or the idea that gains for white women will eventually benefit women of color and trans women as well. She instead proposes reversing this model, and centering the needs of the most vulnerable members of the movement first, rather than continuing to ask them to wait in line for a turn that never seems to come. Hood Feminism also calls for an acknowledgement that “white privilege knows no gender.” Kendall suggests that women in positions of relative privilege should acknowledge that power, because “sometimes being a good ally is about opening the door for someone instead of insisting that your voice is the only one that matters.”

Kendall also points out that the mainstream feminist movement too often asks black women to divorce their feminism from their blackness, sometimes at the expense of black men. Without the nuance of intersectionality, black men are treated as if they have the same power and privilege as white men, even as black women bear daily witness to the fact that this is not true for the men in their lives. The most powerful faces of the patriarchy are not, and have never been, men of colour. She stresses the importance of acknowledging these nuances before effective policy solutions that do not harm marginalized people can be proposed and enacted.

Having established the narrow bounds of our current ideas of feminism, Kendall turns her attention to the broader issues she believes should be viewed through a feminist lens. These include issues as various poverty, hunger, gun violence, education, and housing. For each, she approaches the issue afresh, and demonstrates the unique harms and impacts faced by women and children that qualify them for consideration as a feminist issue. In the case of gun violence, she highlights data showing that “the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a women will be killed” by her partner. This leads directly to police brutality as a feminist issue, because when black women face domestic violence, they cannot turn to the law for a remedy without risking further violence. By following these connections, Kendall makes the case for broadening the scope of feminism.

Respectability politics are a major theme throughout the book, impacting how people are perceived and valued by society in a variety of situations. But Kendall points to poverty as a key driver away from the ability to maintain standards of respectability, pushing people into impossible choices between food and selling drugs, or shelter and sex work. “Any system that makes basic human rights contingent on a narrow standard of behavior pits potential victims against each other and only benefits those who would prey on them,” she argues. These standards can be advocated from within the community, or without, but whatever the source, they often “reflect antiquated ideals set up by white supremacy” and are “financially and emotionally expensive” to maintain. Respectability comes up again and again as a factor in deciding who deserves help, and who is deemed beneath notice.

Kendall does address some issues that are already broadly considered feminist issues, such as rape culture and reproductive justice. Here she focuses on the ways we need to broaden our understanding of the issues to be more inclusive of marginalized women, and the ways that women with the most privilege can ensure that they are not contributing to the oppression of other women through complicity in white supremacy. She argues that when white women reinforce stereotypes about women of colour, we legitimize their sexual abuse and reinforce rape culture. “Exotification isn’t freedom,” she argues. Rather, “any feminism that hinges on the fetishization of the beauty of women of color is toxic.” Assertions that sex workers cannot be raped create similar harm, positioning some women as deserving of whatever violence befalls them. In the chapter on reproductive justice, she focuses on black maternal mortality, as well as America’s harmful history of imposing eugenicist reproductive policies on marginalized women. In doing so she calls for a broader feminist understanding of reproductive justice that focuses on more than abortion access.

Hood Feminism provides a broad understanding of why some marginalized women struggle to identify with mainstream feminist organizations and causes. It promotes intersectionality by enhancing our understanding of what constitutes a feminist issue. And it calls on the women who have gained the most from white feminism’s narrow focus to use that relative privilege not for our own further gain, but to reach out and help bring other women onto equal footing, in ways that will benefit us all thanks to the interconnected nature of our society.

You might also like Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

The Good Immigrant

Cover image for The Good ImmigrantEdited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

ISBN 978-0-316-52423-0

“Promises were made to those who arrived on this country’s shores. There were full-throated declarations about equality and all men breathing free. Regardless of how uncomfortable these words may now make some sons of the men who wrote them, we intend to hold those promises to account.” –Walé Oyéjidé

The Good Immigrant is an American take on a British best-seller of the same name, compiled by the same editors, one of whom is now living in the United States. The book consists of twenty-six essays about being an immigrant to the United States, or the child of immigrants. Some now have their own American-born children. Jim St. Germain writes that this is like “living with my heart outside my body in a warzone.” Some are refugees, and others come following family or economic opportunities. Some might even have preferred to stay at home, but were pushed or pulled across the ocean by the circumstances of life. Tensions about immigration remain a political flashpoint in America, leaving the writers to grapple with language, identity, and culture in the midst of a hostile environment.

The collection opens with an essay by Porochista Khakpour about her complicated relationship with being known for her essays about the Iranian-American experience. She struggles openly with the confluence between what she thinks people want to hear from her, what she wants to write, and what she thinks she can sell. Nigerian author Teju Cole also writes about feeling his identity shaped from the outside in this way. Cole describes becoming “African” only upon arriving in America, where the fifty-four countries that make up that vast and diverse continent are reduced to a shapeless monolith. He felt his Blackness more acutely once removed from a place where everyone was Black, and thrown against the white backdrop of America.

The question “Where are you from?” is a thread that runs through many of the pieces collected here. It is addressed by Fatima Asghar, who asks, “how much of myself can I give away to satisfy others’ thirst?” Sometimes the question comes from another outsider seeking connection, but most often it is a loaded question, almost an accusation, and an implication of non-belonging.  The question is at the heart of the essay contributed by Yann Mounir Demange, who is one of three mixed-race brothers, who share the same white mother, but different fathers. He settles on describing himself as a Londoner—but not British—but each layer of his life story that he peels back reveals how complicated and personal such a seemingly simple question can be. Our desire to taxonomize is deeply invasive.

Many of The Good Immigrant’s writers also reveal complex relationships with where they came from. “My people, my people. How I love you on sight, how you make my heart beat a crowded symphony in my chest. Half of the time I want every single one of you as my kin, and half the time I want nothing to do with you. Perhaps this is the source of my loneliness: belonging and not belonging, always, to you,” laments Fatima Asghar, reflecting on the push-pull of her South Asian identity. Priya Minhas writes movingly about women being forced out of her community for failure to conform to its ideals of womanhood: “Sometimes it is a luxury that I’m now able to define myself outside my community. Other times I’m so homesick that I forget I’m living here by choice.” Instead of people, the departed women become cautionary tales for the next generation of girls. Distance becomes a heartbreaking necessity for a woman who wants to build a life outside such narrow confines. For biracial writer Alexander Chee, it was necessary to find a path into his Korean identity that did not involve doing so through his father’s abusive family.

Another thread that runs through the collection is language and accent, which arise again and again as the contributors are continually policed by society for the way that they speak or write. Daniel José Older writes about his childhood refusal to learn Spanish, and the internalized bigotry that led to years of miscommunications with his own family members. Actress Dani Fernandez writes about being frozen out of Spanish by her parents and grandparents, who wanted her to sound American. But instead of her telling her she sounds American, people tell her she sounds white, and that she isn’t Latina enough for their idea of the Latina characters they want to cast for television. Fatima Asghar writes about being a native English speaker, and yet being told that her grasp of the language is wrong. But it is the only language she has, since her parents died and she no longer has Urdu or Saraiki with them. Nigerian Chigozie Obioma writes about how his “African” accent exoticized him, setting him apart from African Americans in the eyes of their White neighbours, at least in situations where he had a chance to open his mouth.

Most of the writers are people of colour, whose outward appearance means that they cannot slip seamlessly into white America and disappear. But one essay comes from Irish immigrant Maeve Higgins, who writes about the blithe privilege with which she overstayed her visa as a teenager, utterly unconcerned that she might be caught or punished. Now acutely aware of her privilege, she writes about how preclearance programs discriminate against people of colour, and prevent legitimate asylum claimants from reaching US soil, a necessary first step in making such a claim. Another is contributed by Jean Hannah Edelstein, the daughter of a Jewish American father and a Scottish mother. She writes about how she felt Othered by being the child of an immigrant who might have preferred to stay the UK, and only later came to realize the privilege of her whiteness in contrast to her identification with the experiences of her peers who were the non-White children of immigrants.

As collection, The Good Immigrant is largely serious in tone, but it is also occasionally funny. Krutika Mallikarjuna writes about going on date with a white woman who goes by her middle name, Anita, but feels compelled to confess that the first name her parents actually gave her is India, after her likely place of conception. Bassim Usmani’s tour diaries about his experiences in a punk band composed entirely of Muslim men is like the premise of a dark sitcom about race, expectations, and double standards. One of the more unique pieces is by Mona Chalabi who uses a paper airplane to help readers understand immigration statistics. Long or short, serious or leavened with unexpected humour, Shukla and Suleyman have brought together a diverse collection of voices highlighting the breadth of the American immigrant experience in the midst of an increasingly xenophobic political environment.

Canada Reads Along: From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse Thistleby Jesse Thistle

ISBN 9781982101213

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, sexual violence, child abuse.

“My words belonged to me. They were the only thing I had that was mine. And I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”

From the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies.

Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself. Thistle’s account begins with crushing images of childhood poverty, including toddlers drinking half-empty beers (“brown pop”) because they were hungry, and trying to eat a raw turnip. Before disappearing onto the streets himself, Thistle’s father spent all their money on drugs and alcohol, and taught his three young sons to beg and steal to feed themselves.

Thistle has a knack for striking images. Early in the book, he describes himself homeless and addicted on the streets of Ottawa, fishing change out of the fountain surrounding the capital’s Centennial Flame. He is half-heartedly pursued by an RCMP officer who is obligated to chase him off, but less than invested in the endeavour. Occasionally his imagery can be overwhelming, such as gut-wrenching descriptions of medical horror. Thistle broke multiple bones after he fell off the side of a building, attempting to break into his brother’s apartment for shelter. On the streets, staying in homeless shelters, smoking against medical advice, his wounds became infected to the point that he was at risk of losing his leg. Eventually he deliberately committed a crime and turned himself in, in order to be sent to jail where he would have stable housing and medical care while his injuries healed.

From the Ashes was the only one of the Canada Reads 2020 titles that I listened to as an audiobook, simply because that was the only format I could get my hands on before the program was initially supposed to air back in March. The audiobook is performed by the author, who has a slow, extremely measured speaking voice. I don’t tend to speed up my audiobooks, as I prefer to listen at speaking speed, but for the first time ever, I listened to the entire audiobook at 1.25x. As this is published, I am currently rereading it in print form and overall would recommend reading over listening.

From the Ashes was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by country musician George Canyon, who appeared via video link from his home near Calgary. In his opening statement, Canyon highlighted the book as a hard story, but also one that is about love and redemption. Of the writing style, he spoke to its personal feel, saying that he felt like he was sitting down to coffee and hearing the life story of a brother, to the point that it felt rude to put down the book and interrupt the conversation. He lauded the uninhibited writing, and the vulnerability Thistle demonstrated in sharing such experiences. During his closing, he admitted that the book made him cry more than once, and held Thistle up as an inspiration for everyone.

With two novels and two memoirs left at the table, a debate ensued about building empathy through fiction and non-fiction, and which form is more effective. As the defender, Canyon argued for the realism of non-fiction, saying that it could not be dismissed as “just fiction” or not real, and that it would therefore be better at creating empathy. Alayna Fender advocated hard for the value of fiction, and the ability to identify with fictional characters, because you do not separate yourself from them in the same way you maintain separation from a person you know to be real. The fiction vs. non-fiction debate is a common sticking point in Canada Reads debates when both are brought to the table, and will likely remain an issue this week as one memoir and two novels remain.

Host Ali Hassan directed the conversation back into the hands of Indigenous panelist Kaniehtiio Horn, who incited controversy on Day One by referring to From the Ashes as “trauma porn.” Horn is championing the other Indigenous book at the table, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. She clarified that she felt that From the Ashes appealed to a non-Indigenous audience, and that for Indigenous readers, it would actually be all-too-familiar and even triggering to read. She agreed that the book could help build empathy, but also pointed to the idea that it might be so appealing because it holds up a colonial idea of success. Certainly Canyon’s choice to call Thistle inspirational points to that appeal factor playing into his choice.

When it came time to cast the ballots, once again the vote split down gender lines, with George Canyon and Akil Augustine voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. The accessibility of Coles’ writing remained a matter of hot debate on Day Two, and Augustine once again raised the subject of Coles having an axe to grind and whether or not people would actually read her story as a result. On the other side, Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together to make From the Ashes the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. As Jael Richardson brought up, with this elimination, Canada Reads 2020 is set to make history this week. Never in the history of Canada Reads has a woman defending a woman’s book won the debates.