The older I get, the more and more significant my identity becomes to me. During the resurgence of the BLM movement last year, I wrote about how important it was to keep pushing for change. While a very obvious change occurred politically in the U.S. (read: the election), it does not mean the work is done and the problems have vanished, as evidenced by the recent shooting of Daunte Wright. I can (and will) talk until I’m blue in the face about systemic racism against black people, but today, I want to talk about strenghtening allyship.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I joined a book club last summer that has truly become one of the primary highlights of my week. Each Sunday, I meet with other people of color to discuss books that directly address racism and race-related topics. It is the much-needed safe space that I didn’t realize was missing from my life. Every book helps me reshape my perspective and I think to myself, “This is it. This is the best book I’ve ever read” until we tackle another amazing read. A few books in particular, however, have really solidified how important allyship is. We started our club with primarily autobiographies and we started incorporating more fiction; still, the fictional and blended fact-and-fiction reads have detailed very real and historical events in communities of color across the globe. If you have been seeking new books by authors of color that give firsthand accounts of generational linkages, these are three you cannot miss:
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is “a saga about four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family fight to control their destiny in 20th-century Japan, exiled from their home.” Although it is a fictional book, Min Jin Lee spent years researching its material through travels between Japan and Korea to talk to different generations of people impacted by the Japanese Occupation and subsequently the severing of North and South Korea. I hate to admit this, but I had absolutely zero knowledge of this side of WWII history. A tragic history between two Asian countries is certainly not mainstream history in America, despite the U.S. being directly involved in the division of Korea and being responsible for the Japanese internment camps. Unfortunately, Asian stories are often overlooked, dismissed, or not taken seriously due to the ongoing effects of being labeled the model minority over 50 years ago–a term used to pit Asian people against other people of color, primarily black people, and also used to silence them since their lives are deemed ‘better by comparison.’ These effects of WWII continue to plague how Asian Americans relate to each other even here in the States in present day with the increased publicity around AAPI hate. At the risk of not spoiling anything further, this book does a beautiful job of detailing the layers of generational trauma and nationalism. It is a must-read and it compels you to learn the factual side of what happened and its residual effects.
- Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Ahktar
Homeland Elegies “blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of longing and dispossession in post-Trump America…at its heart it is the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home.” In this case, the son being the author and his own father, as well as many other family members and friends, detailing their experiences being Pakistani and Muslim in America from 9/11 through the Trump era. I wish I could put into words how I feel about this book, but it is so difficult because saying ‘I love it’ is such an understatement. What I love about this book, besides playing detective on which parts are fictional, is the historical context that is always provided behind each character; through Ahktar, readers are given firsthand accounts of people that experienced the wars between India and Pakistan after the British partition, the rise of al-Qaeda and its effects in the U.S. and in Pakistan, the author’s own experience of living in Manhattan on and after 9/11 as a Muslim man, and so much more. Despite attending a predominantly Indian and Pakistani school for nine years of my life, reading this book allowed me to reexamine the parallel universe that the South Asian community faces here in the U.S.: falling into that same model minority myth (exceling as engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.), but otherwise existing in the shadows until conversations of terrorism are at the forefront. It’s disgusting and heart-wrenching and Ahktar puts his Pulitzer Prize to use by detailing every part of that experience.
- The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
While I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of books that I find thought-provoking and I label as a ‘personal favorite’ that I hope to read time and time again and pass down to my children–such as the two books above–no book thus far has shaken me to my core like this one. It is so hard to articulate how a heartbreaking book can be ‘good,’ but it is, without question, the book that I believe gave most of us in the book club the most visceral reaction. “Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she’d tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell. So she wrote her immigration lawyer’s phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants—and to find the hidden key to her own.” At first glance, this less-than-200-page book doesn’t appear to be able to tell the unbridled story of Latinx immigrants across six U.S. cities and yet, it somehow does in the most honest, non-sugar-coated, gritty way that only Cornejo Villacencio can write. This book details the experiences of Latinx immigrants and their children including herself and her own family–their role in our systems and infrastructures here in America, their hidden and obvious contributions to our society, how they are woven into every fabric of American life, and the literal and figurative walls that have been built to shut them out from achieving the myth that is The American Dream. She tells you upfront this is not a redemption story or written in a way that’s easy to swallow and that is 100% the case. I laughed, I cried, I screamed, I stayed awake at night feeling either helpless or empowered (no inbetween). I would recommend this book to anyone who will listen and I hope that more authors follow in her footsteps.
“So, why should I read books about these issues instead of talking to people,” is probably what you’re wondering. First, it’s not ‘instead of,’ but ‘in addition to.’ The best part about reading is that there is no dialogue; there is no one cutting you off, invalidating or minimizing your experience, and the thoughts are more flushed out than a heat-of-the-moment debate about social issues. Sometimes we all just need to shut up and listen. Furthermore, learning more about the atrocities committed against black people AND non-black people of color helps us in the fight for social change. Colonialism is the primary cause of fracturing between communities of color because all of us are still dealing with its effects in every day life on a global scale. Until we work together as allies, progress will take longer and be more difficult. Suffering is not a contest or a trend. We can all be better allies to each other once we start listening to each other’s stories, stop using one community’s experiences as leverage over another, and, finally, stop contributing to the existing fractures by pointing out what hasn’t been done up to this point. We can start showing up for each other now.
What are some books that enlightened you about another community’s struggle? I would love to add more to my reading list. Let me know in the comments!