Book Lists for All Humans #1

This morning, the Independent ran a book list, ‘13 books everyone should read‘. It popped up on my Twitter feed when someone I follow (a white male) tweeted it with the words, ’13/13 men, 13/13 white. Seriously?’ Clicking the link led to the discovery that the list was voted for by reddit users. My only surprise on discovering this was that House of Leaves wasn’t one of the books on the list.

What isn’t a surprise though is that yet another book list is all-male and all-white. It happens a lot in the media. Last year I got into a debate on Twitter as to whether those writers who selected 10 books related to whichever subject their latest work is on for The Guardian should be given guidelines stating/advising/suggesting they consider a diverse list. Someone (a white male) argued that because they were personal choices they should be allowed to reflect that person’s taste. A point that would be perfectly valid if structural inequality didn’t exist and the majority of people writing these lists weren’t white. At that time, Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets, counteracted the largely male, all-white, list of Top Ten Summers in Fiction.

I’ve long been riled by this situation: when I used to include lists in In the Media, I spent a disproportionate amount of time checking whether the lists were gender balanced. Most were not. Include the balance of white to brown writers and there would’ve been barely any lists left. Every time one appears, I think I should counteract it with an all-female list of writers of a variety of skin tones and today I’m riled enough that I’m doing just that.

BookListsforAllHumans

Welcome to the first in a series! Here’s my take on 13 Books Everyone Should Read. I’m aware there’s many more I could’ve chosen so please, leave your suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping this will become an series of excellent crowdsourced book recommendations. Then, maybe, the media might just have a word with itself and compile lists reflective of the actual world rather than its own narrow one.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronté

Americanah – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

Push – Sapphire

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

(Links are to my reviews.)

Books of the Year, Part One: Pre-2015 Publications

Like last year, I’ve read a lot of books so I’ve decided to split my books of the year post into two – those published pre-2015 and those published in 2015 (UK dates where applicable). The latter will appear tomorrow, in the meantime, here’s my pick of the former. Clicking on the book cover will take you to my review.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

Not just a book of the year, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in the Nighted States sometime in the future and narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star. White people are dead of a disease called WAKS. Black people die of something called Posies at eighteen/nineteen. Ice Cream Star’s brother, Driver, is dying and she sets out to find a cure. Written in a futuristic version of AAVE, the novel considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love and has one of the best heroines ever. Newman also gives good interview, you can read my interview with her here.


Prayers for the Stolen
– Jennifer
Clement

Ladydi Garcia Martínez was dressed as a boy until she was eleven, as were all the girls in her village. This was to prevent drug traffickers kidnapping them. But Ladydi’s friend, Paula, was taken and – astonishingly – returned. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes. Ladydi’s narration lifts this from being utterly bleak and Clement’s plot twists, often buried in a mid-paragraph sentence, are brilliant.

 

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandesamy

The story of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. A small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years and any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, the local workers stand strong but their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed. This is also a book about how you might tell the story of a massacre and the problems you might incur. Intelligent, layered, funny metafiction blending facts and storytelling.

 

how to be both – Ali Smith 

how to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. George’s section is about life after the death of her mother; Francescho’s is about his youth and becoming an artist. Smith considers what art is and what’s its value, as well as how to be two things at once – alive and dead, watched and watcher, male and female. One of the joys of reading the novel is spotting the connections between the two sections.

 

Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

A collection about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Teenagers deal with abortions, parental arguments and first loves:your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching. Adults negotiate beginnings, endings and whether to stay or go: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. Ranging from flash fiction to interlinked stories, this is a confident, beautifully written collection.

 

 

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn 

The story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil and Aloysius Binewski created their own freaks, experimenting with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers. Competition is fierce between them. The sub-plot, set in the future tells of Olympia and her daughter, Miranda, pursued by heiress, Mary Lick, who pays for women to be operated on so they’re less attractive/less likely to be exploited by men. A cult classic.

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

My review of this was bumped to January 2016 due to #diversedecember but I love this book. Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lottringer, have dinner with Dick, a cultural critic and acquaintance of Sylvère’s.  Chris falls for Dick and begins writing letters to him. The love is largely unrequited but she explores her feelings for him through the letters. The second half of the book, in particular, becomes much more than that, it’s filled with critical essays on art and theorists and explores the role of women in culture and life. A book you need to read with a pencil in hand. Should be described as ‘a classic’, rather than ‘a feminist classic’.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen 

Two novellas packaged together. In Quicksand Helga Crane searches for happiness. It’s always fleeting and she moves on until she finds herself trapped. Passing, the stronger of the two stories, focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Clare is passing as white to the extent that not even her racist husband knows she’s black. The tension comes from knowing she’s bound to be exposed but also the devastating consequences her reappearance has on Irene’s life too.

 

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

A counterfactual slave narrative in which black people rule the world and whites are slaves. Divided into three sections, the first and third focus on Omorenomwara/Doris Scagglethorpe and her attempt to escape Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK) and return to her family. The middle of the novel is the chief’s story of his involvement in the slave trade. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. Very funny in a horrifying sense. The reversal highlights the ludicrousness of the slide trade as well as reminding us of the barbarity of it.

How to Be a Heroine – Samantha
Ellis 

On a visit to Top Withins, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, Ellis has a revelation: My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane. It leads her to revisit heroines from her formative years and consider others she didn’t read at the time. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, fearlessly feminist, this will add to your TBR books you want to read and books you want to revisit. Part of the joy of this book is the space Ellis leaves for you to discuss and argue with her. I didn’t always agree with her points (#TeamCathy) but I was always engaged.

 

 

Mân – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her. Maman finds Mãn a husband and moves to Montreal to live with him, helping to run his restaurant. As it becomes more and more successful, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and falls in love. Told in first person narrated vignettes, this is a beautifully written and emotionally engaging book.

Diverse December – Why Do It?

The simple answer is that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers are largely ignored. Underrepresented on agents’ books, publishers’ lists, review pages, prizes lists and recommended reads.

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The catalyst for this particular initiative was the revealing of the UK’s World Book Night list last week. In case you’re not aware of WBN, the idea is that members of the public sign up to be a giver. They choose a book from the list they’d like to distribute to non-readers and, if their application’s successful, are sent 20 copies of their chosen book. It’s a great initiative and I’ve been a giver myself. However, this year there isn’t a single book by a BAME writer on the list.

Responding to this, writer Nikesh Shukla wrote a piece for the Bookseller titled ‘Where Are World Book Night 2016’s BAME Writers?’ In it, he says:

…having BAME writers will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else. Because we certainly belong in the prizes – look at this year’s incredibly diverse Man Booker shortlist. It was so inspiring.

Unfortunately, some people didn’t feel the same way, going as far as to suggest that including BAME writers on the list would be ‘tokenism’. Using that word in this context provokes some very grim connotations.

Let’s think about that in terms of statistics for a moment. 16% of the world’s population is white, which means 84% is not. 84% of people in the world are black, Asian or minority ethnic. In the UK, the 2011 census showed that 14% of the population identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic. In the USA, the 2014 census puts the equivalent BAME population at 22%. In both countries the white population is declining. While white people only make up 16% of the world’s population they still dominate it politically, socially and culturally, meanwhile the 14% of BAME people who live in the UK are barely visible and if we include them on a list of books it’s ‘tokenism’.

In yesterday’s Guardian, Shukla commented further on the issue with regards to the publishing industry in the UK:

“When you criticise prizes and review coverage and lists for not being diverse enough, you’re told it’s because of what publishers are submitting, that it just reflects what publishers are putting out. So you say OK, publishers, and they say what they publish reflects what they’re sent by agents, so you say to agents, ‘where are the brown people?’ and they say they don’t discriminate, they just aren’t getting submissions through.”

“So you say it’s the writers’ fault. So you speak to writers, and they say they look at the prizes, the lists, the reviews, the bookshops, and they don’t see themselves reflected. So whose responsibility is it?”

Shukla says he’s taken on the responsibility of shouting about it. So who’s listening?

Yesterday, Galley Beggar Press, the small independent press who published Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, tweeted that they estimate 85% of their submissions to be from men and suspect that 80% are white men. They’ve applied for funding to appoint a ‘Diversity Editor’, a role which will include making contact with writers and writing groups around the country, actively seeking work from people who might not otherwise submit their stories. Clearly they’re listening.

My friend Dan is listening. When I returned to Twitter following the negative comments about Shukla’s Bookseller comments, Dan had begun a hashtag #diversedecember and suggested that people read and recommend books by writers of colour for the whole of the month of December. He’s written about his reasons for doing so on his blog.

I’ve joined him because I think this is important too. I wrote back in January that I was aiming to read and review more books by women of colour because my unconscious bias meant I was almost entirely focused on white women. When I was asked to be Guest Editor for Fiction Uncovered in May, I wrote about being an outsider in literature and what it means not to be represented in the stories you read. I also suggested that it was time for readers to let the publishing industry know that we want a wider range of stories by a wider range of writers.

Next time you’re choosing a book, whether it’s physical or virtual, from your own shelves, a bookshop or a library, consider the writer for a moment. Are you choosing a book by a white man or woman over a book by a person of colour? What’s the reason for your choice? Is it the time to try a book you might not otherwise have picked up and see whether it’s for you?

I’m aware that possible answers to these questions are ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘How would I know the skin colour of the writer?’ The latter’s easily answered by looking at the author’s photograph on the inside of the book jacket or with a quick internet search of their name. The idea that someone doesn’t see colour is a more complicated one, however. In a society dominated by white narratives, if we don’t see colour we don’t see black and Asian narratives. That makes us complicit in the maintenance of a dominant white narrative. It’s not a statement of equality, it’s a statement of ignorance and it’s a dangerous one.

If you really don’t believe you have an unconscious bias, have a go at Harvard University’s Implicit Association test. I did it yesterday and came out as having a strong automatic preference for light skin. Did that result make me feel uncomfortable? Yes it did. Did that result contradict everything I think I believe about how I conduct myself as a member of society? As someone who supports student teachers? As a stepparent? Yes it did. But now I’m aware of it, I can move to correct it.

The Harvard University tests don’t just cover skin colour, they also test for gender bias, sexuality bias, able body bias and more. Which leads me nicely to noting that I’m aware that diversity is about more than skin colour and if a person’s identity intersects with a number of non-mainstream categories or communities the less visible they become. Try and list books by brown-skinned members of the LGBT communities for starters…then move on to those differently abled. What about BAME writers, differently abled and identifying with LGBT communities? How many did you come up with? How many of those were women? Working class?

It seems pertinent here to mention positive discrimination. Someone (white, usually male) always says that surely most people would want to be recognised on merit rather than being given ‘a helping hand’. Well, yes, of course, but, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s an unconscious bias towards white people that’s allowed them to be positively discriminated towards for centuries. They’re less likely to live in poverty and so more likely to have access to the structures that allow them thrive. One of the outcomes of this has been some very high-profile appointments of people who proved to be mediocre at best.

On a personal, anecdotal note, in 2014 10% of the books I read were by writers of colour. Those books made up 12.5% of my books of the year list. So far this year, 30% of the books I’ve read have been by writers of colour and in the draft list of my books of the year I created a couple of weeks ago, books by writers of colour make up 40%. It might be a crude measurement but it seems clear that there’s a basic correlation.

If all that has convinced you to join us in shouting about books by BAME writers, it’s really easy. Use the hashtag #diversedecember and tweet about the books you’re reading. You can also use the hashtag and the Twitter account – @DiverseDecember – to find suggestions from other readers.

If you want a few ideas to get started, I highly recommend the following:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine – a blend of flash fiction, poetry and essay looking at what it’s like to be black in America in the 21st Century

Passing by Nella Larsen – a novella in which childhood friends Irene and Clare rekindle their friendship in 1920s Harlem. But Clare’s been passing as white and her racist husband doesn’t know.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik – Sofia’s split up with her boyfriend who wants them to live in adjoining houses with his whole family; her mother thinks she shouldn’t wear a hijab, and her publishing house boss wants her to write a Muslim dating book. Sweary, funny romantic fiction.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – an essay collection on feminism, popular culture and Scrabble.

Springfield Road by Salena Godden – a memoir about Godden’s childhood and her largely absent father.

There are more suggestions on my ‘Women of Colour’ tab at the top of the page; the Guardian Reading Group are selecting a book from the Caribbean for this month, so you might want to read along with them, and below are a selection of great bloggers of colour who have plenty of reviews to choose from:

Folklore & Literacy

Les Reveries de Rowena

The Poco Book Reader

Brown Girl Reading

Kinna Reads

Looking forward to seeing everyone’s choices and selections throughout the month on #diversedecember.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Quicksand and Passing are two novellas packaged together and reissued by Serpent’s Tale in the UK. They both share the key theme of being a woman of colour in America early in the twentieth century but the two pieces explore ideas around this in different ways.

Helga Crane is twenty-three and a teacher at Naxos, ‘the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country’. Helga’s out of favour at the school and urgently wishes to leave despite her engagement to a colleague. Her fiancé has ‘naturalized’, fitting into the school and its values. Helga, however, ‘…could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity’. She’s failed to impress his family too:

Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t “belong”. You could be queer, or even attractive, or bad, or brilliant, or even love beauty and such nonsense if you were a Rankin, or a Leslie, or a Scoville; in other words, if you had a family. But if you were just plain Helga Crane, of whom nobody has ever heard, it was presumptuous of you to be anything but inconspicuous and conformable.

Helga leaves Naxos and the south in search of happiness. Although she is unaware of the form happiness might take for her. Arriving in Chicago, she goes to the home of her uncle, her deceased mother’s brother, but is rejected by his wife who denies any connection between Helga and her husband. In a veiled conversation, it’s implied that the issue is that Helga’s mother had her out of wedlock to a white man.

In keeping with the title of the book, Helga’s situation changes seemingly quickly again and again. After weeks of unemployment, she finds a job with a woman, Mrs Hayes-Rore, who gives speeches on ‘the race problem’ before moving to New York to live with a relative of Mrs Hayes-Rore’s. Before leaving she’s advised:

I wouldn’t mention that my people are white, if I were you. Colored people won’t understand it, and after all it’s your own business.

Whenever she finds somewhere she thinks she fits – and Larsen moves her between black and white society – she is eventually disabused of her feelings, often through the behaviour of those around her. The novella ends when she finds herself in a situation she cannot leave. It’s a sobering end showing that women, regardless of education and connections, actually have few outcomes available to them.

Passing – which is the stronger of the two stories – focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. The friendship is one from childhood, broken following the death of Clare’s father, after which she was sent to live with relatives and rumours of her becoming a sex worker spread through the group she left behind. Two years before the books begins, the women have come across each other in a hotel tearoom:

Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?

Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.

Although Irene is passing in the hotel, Clare is passing in every day life and Irene judges her for it. Initially this leads Irene to question the behaviour of other friends but the tension really rises when she meets Clare’s husband.

John Bellow greets his wife with the words, “Hello, Nig”, leading Irene to believe he knows that she is black. However, he then explains his nickname for her:

“When we were first married, she was as white as – as – well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s getting’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger…No niggers in my family…They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils.”

Clare’s reason for getting back in touch with Irene after this incident is that she wants to spend more time in Harlem with people of colour. Irene strongly suggests that this is risky behaviour considering her husband’s ignorance but Clare doesn’t care. It seems as though this story has an obvious conclusion to reach but Larsen complicates it with problems in Irene’s marriage leading to a swift, shocking, unexpected twist that had me gasping aloud.

Quicksand and Passing are taut novellas exploring the clash of black and white society and the roles women would take to be seen as acceptable in different circumstances. Larsen explores a range of viewpoints and considers women in a number of positions on the social spectrum. The stories are interesting windows into the time period but also tightly plotted, compelling tales in their own right. Highly recommended.

In the Media: 12th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

The results of the VIDA count was announced on Monday. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts have counted the number of female and male reviewers in the major literary publications. There are some improvements this year, but overall the picture remains grim. For the first time this year, VIDA published a separate count for Women of Colour, it’s as depressing as you might expect. Reaction came from Hannah Ellis Peterson in The Guardian, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds‘; Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph, ‘Men aren’t better writers than women. Literary mags need to close the book on gender bias‘ and on Bustle, Caroline Goldstein declared, ‘The Results of the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count Are Problematic‘.

VIDA also produced a handout: Things You Can Do Right Now to Advance Women’s Writing. Immediately after the results of the announcement, good things began to happen in Twitterland; Marisa Wikramamanayake created a ‘Women Who Review‘ database. If you’re a reviewer, you can add yourself to it; if you’re an editor at a literary magazine with a gender balance problem, you can have a look at all the women you could approach with review commissions. Judi Sutherland is getting a group of women reviewers together to send reviews to the TLS, contact her on Twitter if you want to get involved, and Amy Mason created Sister Act Theatre (@SisterTheatre): Support + recommendations of/for women working in UK theatre/performance. Worked with a great woman? Need work? Promoting your show? Tell us.

While all that’s been going on, Katy Derbyshire has been collating ‘Some more statistics on translated fiction‘ on Love German Books.

The other big news this week came from an American report that found the number of women choosing to be child-free has increased. The report coincided with the publication of the Meghan Daum edited essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids and the launch of the film While We’re Young. It’s triggered a number of articles: Emma Gray at the Huffington Post says, ‘A Record Percentage Of Women Don’t Have Kids. Here’s Why That Makes Sense‘; Jane Marie wrote, ‘Why I Stopped Trying to Be a Supermom and Started Being Myself Again‘ on Jezebel’; Hayley Webster wrote, ‘I had an abortion and didn’t talk about it…and I no longer want to live in shame‘ on her website; Hadley Freeman wrote, ‘Why do we still have to justify the choice to be child-free?‘ in The Guardian; Jessica Valenti asked, ‘Why do we never worry about men’s childlessness and infertility?‘ also in The Guardian

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music and Television:

 

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 8th March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s International Women’s Day today and, as you might expect, there have been a number of articles written about and with regards to it. Verso Books published a reading list; in the New Statesman, Stella Creasy said, ‘On International Women’s Day, let’s ask men why progress towards equality is so slow‘; One Book Lane ran a series, ‘The #WonderWomen you need to read about this International Women’s Day‘; Rebecca Winson wrote, ‘We mustn’t forget the revolutionary roots of International Women’s Day‘ in the New Statesman; Somayra Ismailjee, wrote ‘Self-Love Amidst Marginalisation‘ on Media Diversified; Cathy on 746Books wrote, ‘Putting Irish Women Writers Back in the Picture‘ with links to the articles the Irish Times have been running for the past fortnight and their celebratory poster which you can download; Harriet Minter wrote, ‘No need for International Women’s Day? What world do you live in?‘ in The Guardian; Emily Thornberry declared, ‘We Need a New Equal Pay Act‘ in the New Statesman, and Lucy Mangan says, ‘Women take more than enough shit‘ in Stylist.

The Harper Lee story continues, Connor Sheets of AL.com wrote to her and got a response, ‘Harper Lee appears to be fully lucid: She just told me to ‘go away’ via snail mail‘.

And an absolute joy of a series in Vogue: for the whole of March, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does ‘Today I’m Wearing‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists: