I don't read a lot of non-fiction. Since 2006, I've read 28 non-fiction books. A few memoirs, a couple essay collections, some on history, some on nature. Once I was even bamboozled into reading a book called Undertaking by Thomas Lynch that turned out to somehow be super anti-choice which wasn't revealed until the very end. Blah blah life is sacred, whatever, undertaker. There are the usual suspects in there as read by every White kid in their early '20s (Hunter S Thompson and Dave Eggers) plus Mary Roach, Gay Talese, John Krakauer, Sarah Vowell. You know, the non-fiction writers. But I never read any Gore Vidal. I read some letters that Jane Bowles wrote to him. And some she wrote to Tennessee Williams in which she mentions him. And I bought one of his books (Empire) and I have every intention of reading it some day. But now he's passed and he's another writer that I mourn without fully grasping the gravity of the loss, which is why I'm dedicating this week's Friday Fiction to the five non-fiction books I've read this year, in honour of Gore Vidal. His books might not be on the list but he, along with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese (and I'm sure some other people who were never published), helped pioneer the creative non-fiction genre. For that, I'm thankful. RIP Gore.
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat – I was out walking with a friend last week, and after having spent a good part of the morning discussing how self-satisfied we felt but in a non-smug way (heh), I let out an exasperated and disgruntled moan. My friend asked what was up and I said, "ugh, I'm just thinking about immigration". I was. I was thinking about Brother, I'm Dying, the book I'd finished the night before that had left me sobbing myself to sleep. Immigration is fucked, guys. It's fucked in the States and it's fucked in Canada (among other places). The few stories that trickle through and end up in the papers are the very tip of the iceberg, some monstrous shit is going on and is being put upon our fellow human beings in the names of national security. Brother, I'm Dying exposes some of that shit. But is also a story about family and love and revolution and loyalties and Haiti and truth and, oh my god, I will name my daughter Edwidge, I swear to god I will. Gorgeous, beautiful and heart-stompingly painful. The only book that has been able to satisfy my Cormac McCarthy 'go big or go home' blood thirst. Unfortunately. Edwiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidge!
|It's Bigger Than Hip Hop|
"I think I like it more than Deadwood and The Wire". Combined with my eyebrows raised to my hairline this did the trick and my friends are all on board for the Crystal Ship. I guess what I'm saying is that I know I say a lot of books are must reads, and I stand by that, but this is for real, for real a must read. Maybe more than any of the others. Asante is obviously a genius (professor at 22, 3 books, 3 movies, has made a documentary with Maya Angelou, has a montage of photos in which he makes Cornel West laugh raucously) and his writing is clear, fresh, entertaining yet bears an incredible gravity for someone so young. He dissects and disseminates hip-hop culture; examines the intersections of race and class, looking at violence and the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex and the ghettoization of poor African American communities and the policies that reinforce those ghettos. All of that through the lens of hip-hop, where it all began, what it is, what it means and how it has (and can) serve as a strong statement for social change. For real, a must read whether you love hip-hop or whether you need some ammunition to throw back in your crappy co-workers' faces when they start in on racist stereotyping about prison, drugs or violence.
Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer – This is a book about moss. Now before you get all up in my grill, rolling your eyes and being like, "why would I even ever read a book about moss. Team gymnosperms 4life!", moss is the cradle of life. Moss creates soil. Moss protects trees and seedlings and keeps forests cool and moist. Moss is used by birds and other animals to build homes and protect their young. Moss grows in the jungle and rainforest and between the cracks of a city sidewalk. Mosses are the earliest forms of non-aquatic life forms on earth, with evidence of bryophytes going back to the Silurian era. Respect moss. Team pteridophytes, all the way. Reading Gathering Moss will learn you all kinds of wonderful science-y things about the wonderful world of moss (and things that will make you weep, like, moss poaching), plus Wall Kimmerer writes absolutely beautifully and with such lush detail that when she writes of walking through a forest and coming across a cave where she finds a crop of Goblin's Gold moss (moss that glows golden when hit by the moon/sunlight just right), you will be right there with her. Or when she describes the smell of an old growth, coastal forest. Or when she speaks to the trauma suffered by an 500 year old tree that has been stripped of it's moss, you feel just as naked and exposed to the elements and helpless. Read It's Bigger Than Hip Hop for the social justice and politics (and the hip hop) and then read Gathering Moss for the environment! MUST READS.
When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist by Joan Morgan – I remember the first time I heard of Womanism. I did not understand and, being fairly new (and eager) to don the label feminist, I was agitated. I could not see that the needs of WOC differed from my needs and that the feminist movement that I was now prescribing to had never fully addressed those needs beyond lip service. I was critical and I was defensive of WOC who shunned feminism for Womanism, who deemed racism more of a pressing issue. What could be more pressing than the legislation of women's bodies? Shit, what a stupid privileged White girl I was (still am, but hopefully less stupid... More aware at least). Looking at the violence that faces POC communities at the hands of the police, two days ago 21 year old Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself in the right temple despite being left-handed, handcuffed behind his back and having been searched twice by police, looking at the outrageous numbers of POC in jail (modern day slavery as MK Asante puts it), looking at the race-baiting that happens in the media and in politics when even the American president is subject to racist dog-whistles, it is clear that for me to sleep at night my feminism has to include putting the fights of POC at the forefront. As Flavia Dzodan wrote, "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit". The journey that I took to feminism is pretty different than the journey that Joan Morgan took. She came to feminism through anti-racism, making feminism fit into her reality of a racist society. The intersectionality framework didn't need to be built, it was already there. While the book is as much about her feminist awakening and coming of age, the heart of the book is balancing the injustices of our society against her race and her gender. Her book is also a feminist manifesto in which she examines an age old dilemma: How to love decidedly unfeminist things but still be true to one's feminism? This is an empowering book that should be read by all young WOC and all young White feminists who want their feminism to be intersectional else it be bullshit.
The Truth About Stories by Thomas King – I'm taking a class right now called Oral Traditions and aside from being the best class ever, we have had to learn how to listen to stories and how to tell stories. We had to break down what makes a good story teller then remember all the criteria and get up in front of the class and our incredible professor and tell one of our own stories and then do it all over again with any story we wanted. Usually with presentations I go all Sweet Dee and dry heave and sweat and turn super red and talk reallyreallyreallyfast but somehow it all came together and I told both my stories and nailed them. 100% y'all. Peer marked. My success was in part due to picking stories that I've told my friends a thousand times (different friends. I have a thousand friends), partly due to the incredible nurturing and supportive atmosphere of the class and partly due to having read Thomas King early in the year. Thomas King might be the best story teller. He opens every chapter with the same story but tells it differently, twisting it so it means something else and fits within the context of that chapter. He writes but you hear his voice. The book (lecture really, it was the 2003 Massey Hall lecture) examines colonization and appropriation and identity and politics all with the sense of humour that King has made famous. As someone who wants make a living as a story teller of sorts and who is committed to Indigenous allyship, this little book was, is invaluable to me.
Have a great weekend! Listen to some hip hop and check for moss in the sidewalk cracks. It's there.
Alex Snider is a Contributing Editor for The Little Red Umbrella. Follow her on Twitter and visit her blog, What Fresh Hell is This?, where this post originally appeared.