9 Break-ups We Need to Have With Our Toxic Present (and Books That Can Help)
May day, which we probably all now know if we didn’t before watching season one of The Handmaid’s Tale, derives from the French “m’aidez,” which means “help me.” It’s May and Mr. (U.S.) President is further off his rocker than ever– withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal for no apparent reason and without any evidence of a plan, which “may lead to war,” some sources say.
In other not-new news, white people are calling the cops on people of color for sleeping in their own dorms, for being in a Starbucks without immediately making a purchase, for participating in a college tour– in short, for no reason other than melanin, i.e. racism. Native Americans are killed by police at a rate that’s “12% higher than for African-Americans and three times the rate of whites” (Hansen) and no one’s really talking about it. And Flint still doesn’t have water. Taking its lead from Kimberly Williams’ “Breaking up with 2017” playlist, this is a list of books I read in the last 12 months which have helped me work through and get perspective on misconceptions, prejudices, and other bad ideas in circulation because the time is now to seek truth and be the change, and reading really helps.
BREAKING UP WITH: Misogyny through reproductive dystopia
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.
Starting with the obvious because it’s a must if you haven’t already– and it’s worth actually reading, even or especially if you’re watching the series. Skip ahead if you’ve been there done that; the list gets more obscure… The Handmaid’s Tale is horrifying, yet so incredibly well-imagined and well-written. Part of its horror is that it all feels eerily plausible, which might be because every dystopian bit of the book has actually happened in human history– it’s true!(!!) The premise for those who don’t know: in the Republic of Gilead, a not-so-distant-future society that has replaced the United States, Offred serves as a handmaid to a Commander named Fred– hence the handmaid name she must go by: Of + Fred. Gross. Handmaids are fertile young women who are kept in a kind of convent/prison where they are forced to bear children for the elites of society. Their fertility is prized and exploited because humans of a previous era (presumably us) have caused an environmental disaster that sterilized most of the women. The surprising and upsetting particulars of the forced reproduction ritual, I’ll let you read for yourself, which you should, because Margaret Atwood is The Best.
BREAKING UP WITH: Ignorance about our racist past
Okay, so this part is really a recommendation of four books, but given our current racial/political climate and the man/men “in charge,” I think it’s well deserved. Look. Obama has come and gone, and America is nowhere near being post-racist. We have an issue and it needs to be confronted. This petit list of books centers around experiences of chattel slavery and racism in the US and includes some of the most foundational texts from the African American literature canon. They’re all brilliant, important, and of course, only a start.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) by Frederick Douglass
Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).
These are autobiographical works written by persons who were slaves and managed to attain “freedom”– a term we might approach with a healthy dose of skepticism. A good place to start in the genre of slave and ex-slave narratives. They are short, but take your time with them. Once you’ve read them, you’ll start seeing references to them everywhere.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson
This is a rich work of racial realism from the Harlem Renaissance that explores colorism, the concept and complex reality of race through the mixed-race protagonist, and briefly, the fact of racist lynching in the early 20th century. (FYI, the last recorded lynching in the US happened in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama. His name was Michael Donald. 1981. #MichaelDonald …is not a thing but maybe it should be.)
Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979)
This is a novel of speculative fiction in which the protagonist, a twenty-something-year-old African American woman living in 1970s Los Angeles, keeps being transported in time and space to participate in the lives of her ancestors on a pre-civil-war-era Maryland plantation. The book speaks so much truth about our history of slavery, past and present racism, and the ways that the past and present are intimately/violently connected and continuous– what the (brilliant) scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlives of slavery.” (Check her out, too!)
Again, this sub-list is especially important now because, well, let’s just call it as it is- our president is a racist. The hosts of Pod Save America put it plainly in their January 18, 2018 episode when they said, “Trump is a racist. We know this because he says racist things all the time.” If you’re still not convinced, there’s also this list the New York Times published. The Pod Save hosts also remark that Trump may not actually believe he is racist: “Many racists don’t.”
Their point, I think, or an important part of it, is that thinking/believing, “I am not racist,” even, “No, really, I’m actually not racist,” simply isn’t enough. It was never enough and never will be. But it seems like we’re all waking up to the fact that if we believe that diversity– not just tokenism– is one of the USA’s greatest assets, and we respect difference (little words, big ideas), then we need to educate ourselves on the histories, concerns, values, perspectives, and current issues of people different from ourselves. I think reading literature is a great way in. (But only a start– also, this is just one tiny book list, and this section, only Af-Am lit specific; we need to proactively advocate for all marginalized groups, too. Here, this next one will help you get fired up–)
BREAKING UP WITH: Passive-ism
See You in the Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (2016) by Ruth Sergel.
On the lower east side of Manhattan in 1911 was a factory fire which killed so many young women that it was as though the entire neighborhood lost its generation of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, or if you don’t need those labels to appreciate female individuals: women. 147 women were lost in the small, tight-knit neighborhood of mostly immigrants. The doors had been locked to prevent workers from taking breaks or leaving to use the bathroom, as there wasn’t one inside. The factory owners got out; the workers didn’t. Here’s a little more about the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.
“To emancipate ourselves we have to exorcise internalized self-censorship and seek communion with others to find brash hope.”
Author, artist, filmmaker, activist Ruth Sergel started a movement to memorialize this historical event and the lives lost. In See You in the Streets, Sergel chronicles the evolution of the movement in her own formally inventive, memorial text. Sergel was committed to enacting feminist principles in her process of organizing, and she writes vividly about the challenges, conflicts, and joys of trying to help make change while honoring democracy and consensus, diversity, equality, and collectivity. It’s an inspiring book that reads like a memoir and a book of women’s history and motivation/empowerment and no other genre I’ve previously encountered, and it will leave you ready to surge into the streets.
BREAKING UP WITH: Thinking that predatory capitalism is inevitable and unchangeable
Speculate This! (2013) written collectively by the Uncertain Commons.
Speculate This! posits “affirmative” speculation as a tool against the prisonhouse of “firmative” speculation inside which we currently live. “Affirmative” speculation is speculation that is creative, playful, radically imaginative, and possibility-expanding (think speculative fiction), whereas “firmative” speculation, the act of using predictive models to bet on future outcomes, forecloses possibilities as it raises the stakes (think financial speculation). It’s a short book that gets the paradigm-shifting juices flowing.
Anti-Capitalism: A Beginner’s Guide (2013) by Simon Tormey.
From speculating differently, I’d move into books specifically on anti-capitalism, which, as Simon Tormey conveys in his Beginner’s Guide, is a growing movement with promise for re-making our world in a way that benefits not the already-hads, but everyone, as the equal humans we are.
If, like me, you think the world needs to undergo an entire paradigm shift away from the values (or lack thereof) of neoliberal capitalism and towards a new, more humane, equality-oriented world order, these books provide a useful entry into imagining this new world.
BREAKING UP WITH: The false comfort that comes from thinking the planet will just be fine if we do nothing
New York 2140 (2017) by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I didn’t adore everything about New York 2140, but it was thorough and amusing in its depiction of a partially drowned, post-sea-level-rise New York City in the not-so-distant future. It foregrounds the resilience of humans after catastrophe– specifically the resilience of New Yorkers, from a pair of resourceful street orphans to one risk-seeking, environmentalist reality tv celebrity to the painfully recognizable Wall Street traders of what could easily be 2140 if we’re not careful. The book offers a frightening vision of how resilient capitalism would likely prove even after it causes mass devastation in the form of apocalyptic sea level rise.
The World Without Us (2007) by Alan Weisman.
The World Without Us is both fantasy and non-fiction about the how the post-apocalyptic world would actually be if humans were eliminated from the planet. The book tries to answer as truthfully as possible the question of what would happen to everything left behind– from skyscrapers and coral reefs and bacteria to our “thought waves.” The writing is obsessively well-researched and imagined in its almost 400 pages of description of the world without us. It felt dense and monotonous at times, but helped me zoom out on our super brief human moment in the deep time of our planet and is an undertaking that will stay with me for a long time.
Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood.
Oryx and Crake, I adored. Not surprisingly, because, again, Margaret Atwood. It’s a dystopic commentary on global capitalism and unchecked consumerism. The book takes place after humans have been wiped off the face of the earth after a Viagra-like pill called BlyssPlus is manufactured with secret fatal side effects and is widely distributed, intentionally. It’s scrumptiously written, brilliantly imagined, and just a generally enjoyable read if you’re into dystopias.
Together, these three texts provide different kinds of writing that will help you imagine what could happen to us and our world if we keep doing next to nothing about climate change.
BREAKING UP WITH: Xenophobia
Poppies of Iraq (2017)by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim.
A beautiful, tender, subtle, nuanced, and touching graphic memoir about a girl who grew up in Iraq and moved to France around age 13. Findakly’s adolescence and young adulthood was made to unfold amid the ineffable state of exile, of not-belonging, and of a rupture with home, with self, with family, with culture, with friends, and yet, the beauty of the memoir is that it is full of joy and love and wonder and peace. It was important to Findakly in creating this book to provide readers with a sense of what it is like to be from Iraq, a place that is depicted almost exclusively with such disastrous press, as if it is but a country damaged and dangerous when of course it is so much more, including a cherished home to many. This book is a dear reminder to think the human (to think as humans, about humans) amid the onslaught of crisis-reporting we absorb every day about people in so many places that we don’t know.
BREAKING UP WITH: Genre-rigidity (including fixed boundaries of genre and gender)
The Argonauts (2015) by Maggie Nelson.
Generation Z seems to get that gender is a construct, that we have defined it in a binary somewhat arbitrarily, and that if we let ourselves exist more authentically, gender is quite fluid. I personally like to think of all persons containing and having access to both the divine feminine and the divine masculine, and that it’s healthy and life-giving to be in touch with these energies, and unnecessary and toxic to feel like you are only supposed to be one specific way all the time. But that’s just me. Maybe you feel differently and that’s cool, too. Mostly I think we should respect everyone’s gender identity and expression, whatever it is, because who are we to say otherwise? I think there’s much more harm done in trying to limit people’s identities than in just choosing to honor people’s identities, even if those identities might not make sense to you in a given moment.
Anywho, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a book that defies genre and the gender binary. I love the way linguistic and formal fluidity can help us think more fluidly about other things like gender. The book is also about gender, but more-so about ambiguity and specificity and identity, about motherhood, about navigating intimacy and partnership and sexuality, about language and ideas, about writing, about love, about nuance in the face of humans’ relentless (because biological?) impulse to categorize.
BREAKING UP WITH: The (confusing) stereotype of women’s inferior intellect
The Weight of Ink (2017) by Rachel Kadish.
Oh, The Weight of Ink. Gripping, stunningly woven, emotionally rich and nuanced, this thriller of an intellectual tale brings together the lives of two brilliant, daring, driven women who have pursued truth at different and similar costs across four centuries. I knew the book was special when I found myself wanting to buy it for everyone I love. Weeks later, still, I found myself missing the characters, wanting to climb back inside their world through Kadish’s delectable prose. The Weight of Ink is about being intellectually fierce and female in a world that has long rewarded the intellect of men and feared that of women; it’s about religion and the pursuit of truth; it’s about the 17th century and today; it’s about hope and reason, about enduring life after true love’s lost; about passion in youth and the different textures passion takes on over a lifetime. It poses acutely relevant questions about the value and consequences of pursuing your own truth– about betraying the ones who raised you by breaking from their beliefs. What are the ethics of betrayal in the quest for truth?
BREAKING UP WITH: Phoniness, with the limitations of gender roles, with misogyny, with anything other than an orientation of love in the world
Love Warrior (2017) by Glennon Doyle Melton.
Glennon Doyle Melton’s ferocious honesty in her memoir Love Warrior is strength-giving and hard-earned. This is a book that changed me, made me feel braver and bolder and ready to ask less timidly, more clearly for what I need and what I want– from myself, from my partner, from the people I care about, from the world. Love Warrior is a gift of radical vulnerability and courage. Melton writes intrepidly about the processes entailed in unlearning self-loathing and working for (real, deep, honest) self-love, about cultivating courageous vulnerability and intimacy, about deep forgiveness, and about building bravely honest love in partnership and in family. Melton courageously confronts the roles and demands she internalized growing up as a young woman in the USA of the 80s, 90s and 00s, and the walls she built to protect her sensitive self from the danger of vulnerability in such an unforgiving world. Her walls were bulimia, alcoholism, toxic partying, and a life spent trying to be “attractive,” trying to be who she was supposed to be, trying to suppress her real wants and desires to survive in a world that wants women to stay small and pretty. Melton does the powerful and terrifying work to thrive instead, and shares with us that we may help ourselves and honor others in what I hope will be our collective striving to do the same.
“We know we must decide whether to stay small, quiet, and uncomplicated or allow ourselves to grow as big, loud, and complex as we were made to be. Every girl must decide whether to be true to herself or true to the world. Every girl must decide whether to settle for adoration or fight for love.”
Look at us go! We’re breaking up with so many bad things! With misogyny, ignorance, racism, passive-ism, predatory capitalism, environmental apathy, xenophobia, fixed ideas about gender, sexism, phoniness, and with being oriented in the world by any force other than love. Sounds pretty awesome. If only it were as simple as reading a few books, what a world we’d be living in. So there’s more to do, BUT ideas precede action. Books help shape the way we see and understand the world around us, so we have to keep reading always if we want to continue growing and changing. I’ve lived three decades already and this year, through these books and others, I have learned and grown so much. I don’t think it ever stops, if you’re open. And neither does the world. We will always be making and re-making this world we share, and reading, thinking, and discussing together is where it all starts. Thanks for reading!