I had a conversation with my brother a few months ago about raising kids. We talked about the challenge of instilling sensible (re: feminist) politics and circled around how that might be done. I’ll be sending him Adichie’s tiny book Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions because in it, Adichie takes this exact question – how to raise a feminist – and poses fifteen possibilities. Granted they are suggestions aimed at a woman-identified character/speaker about raising a lady-identified child, but the
suggestions, edicts, prompts nevertheless read as widely applicable. (This apparent universality is – perhaps – a point for further questioning and consideration). Continue reading
I first heard about Ta-Nehisi Coates on an episode of This American Life. The story was about what happens when your friend makes it big and you… don’t. [Relevant episode for you to listen to as you’ll all have to deal with this question when I make it big…hahaha] I asked for his book Between the World and Me for Christmas not with any real enthusiasm for the book (after all, it’s non-fiction) but with curiosity about what kind of book could propel an author and his work to such consistent and widespread consideration, conversation and celebration. Heralded as the voice of black America, bazillions of reviews called it the book everyone should read – especially white liberal America: here, here and here. Another bazillion of reviewers are disappointed: here and here that it doesn’t go far enough, or isn’t hopeful enough, or speaks to the right people or the wrong people.
I know enough to know I don’t know enough to comment on the content of the book with any nuance or authority. I can only comment on the experience of reading it and that was the entire time felt like I was reading something urgent. Not written for me (the book is addressed to his son -though the people-who-think-they-are-white, liberal audience is called forward throughout) the book does the work of educating on systemic racism and the material effects on black bodies. It also straddles a frustrated pessimism and a call to action: articulating the intractability and pervasiveness of structural racism and nevertheless urging his son/the readers to struggle. While the explicit call to action isn’t included (nor does it need to be), the reflection it demands and the likelihood you will both tell someone else to read it and talk to them about it is it’s own kind of clarion call.
H is for Hawk is non-fiction. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s the story of a real woman (author Helen MacDonald) and her real hawk (Mable). And it has gorgeous writing. Really beautiful stuff. The kind that makes you stop and read it out loud to whoever is in the room with you (which, thankfully, was only S. and not my fellow bus passengers – though I bet they’d have appreciated the beauty, too).
It’s also kind of slow. Helen’s father dies. She gets a baby hawk. She teaches the hawk to hunt. She experiences depression. She mourns. It’s not the plot of a novel; it’s the plot of someone’s life, Helen’s life. Well, it would be except that the book also includes a sort of mini-biography within the memoir of falconer and author T H White. The bits about White were… distracting and dull. I suspect they were meant to illuminate ideas about Helen’s life and her work towards healing. Suffice it to say I found the parts about Helen and Mabel more engaging and enriching. I found it hard to make the leap between White and Helen, as if the relationship between the two was meaningful for Helen, but not sufficiently argued for me to see the connection.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s not all about engagement and excitement. I appreciated that much of this book was thematically and structurally about patience. Waiting for the hawk, waiting for grief, waiting for plot. It’s also about time. And about how our sense of our self shifts in place, time and relationship. And space – the contours and power of a specific location. I appreciated the gentle and the meditative. I really did.
And there’s no but. Just the caution that you might expect long – and elegant and surprising and sharp – explorations of landscape and a bird’s movement through it. Plus some brambles.
Read it for the beautiful writing. And let me know what you think.
I’ve started going to *church. Don’t panic. I’m still an atheist: it’s a Unitarian church, so my minister is an atheist, too. If you thought all us athesists were just running around eating babies you might not have realized that I (certainly don’t want to speak for all athesists) do believe in things – I just don’t believe in God, an afterlife, divine-whatever. Instead I believe in community, in our collective and individual need to make meaning. Anyway, this year the congregation has been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and many of the sermons have picked up on themes from the book. Wanting to be the best at church (and earn a gold star at the optional book group discussion) I overcame my instinctual resistance to non-fiction and to a book that appeared – at first – dangerously self-helpy (a post for another day on my objections to self-help books) and gave it a go.
The twelve steps can be neatly summarized (and are by Armstrong) in “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” What makes it an interesting read from a religious studies perspective is the lengths at which Armstrong goes to include a diversity of religious perspectives (though no Unitarians?) on the “Golden Rule”. Her attempt to illustrate the similiarities among not just religions, but a sort of common humanity that has, as part of its nature (she argues), compassion, empathy and care, leads her to close readings of a range of religious, political and literary texts. Each chapter offers a “step” on the path to a more compassionate life. Steps like “empathy,” “self compassion,” or “understanding the limits of our knowledge” and “learning more about others.” With each step she offers daily exercises for extending compassion (indeed she makes a repeated comparison between training for a race or a ballet, and training compassion – that is, she suggests compassion is both an inherent quality and one that needs to be cultivated) like meditating on an enemy and extending to that enemy care and empathy. Of all the steps I found the chapter on ’empathy’ most resonant, and probably because it urges reading literature as a possible means to grow empathetic understanding (a repeated argument I’ve made here on the purpose of reading).
So what did I think of the book? Would I recommend it? I think Armstrong’s belief that we can learn to be individually – and collectively – better at caring for one another is a powerful, if only partially persuasive one. I found the first chapter that provides an overview of how Confusianism, Buddihism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism have understood and practiced ‘compassion’ a potent reminder (and a flashback to first year religious studies) of the similarities among these faith groups, the consistency in their fundamental belief in communal care. I did find that many of the later chapters – five or six pages in length – slipped into something of pat directives to be kinder to other people, to not assume you know everything. I would say that as a non-believer the book was both accessible and non-preachy. I don’t know. Read it if you find yourself frequently overcome with frustration at work: when you can’t stand another meeting, or your boss has just finished explaining the difference between a word document and a pdf for five minutes. You might find then that some of the calls to compassion are helpful, even healing. You may also find lobbing the book at the wall an equally restorative exercise. You be the judge.