If you want bare your soul to the people around you but you don’t know where to start, then reading the same novels can be a good entry point to the deep and meaningful conversations you crave.
We need to talk. We need to talk because we’ve been through something huge and even as normality begins to return it’s likely we’re still all gonna be spinning out for sometime. We need to talk because it’s the best way to open our minds to other people’s experiences and get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. It’s how we’re gonna do the daily work of caring for our hearts and minds and, more importantly, steering ourselves towards a better, fairer, more equal society. Chit chat is over, pleasantries are passé, the time for big conversations is here. If cutting to the chase on major life matters doesn’t come easy then shooting the shit about books can be a good avenue to take.
It’s a great way to move past topics like weather and work and get straight into deeply held convictions and unfiltered viewpoints on the world. It allows the chance for some meaningful korero through the medium of fictional characters and made up scenarios. Sometimes it’s a surprise who you side with over a protagonist’s dilemma. Occasionally you discover that someone you hold dear is diametrically opposed to you over a matter of morality. It’s ok to be challenged but it’s also a chance to be brave and offer up your own perspective. Both of these options can be a path to connection and that’s what we need more than ever right now. Here are some good books to use as a jumping off point for discussion and debate among friends and family:
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This is a book about relationships and race and the American justice system. I’m not revealing too much by telling you that it is the story of an African American man who is wrongly accused of rape and thrown into prison for it. He is Roy and he is not long married to Celestial when the horror unfolds. Cracks are already beginning to show in their marriage and then they are ripped apart both physically and metaphorically by a jail term. This book will make people think about love and loyalty and how blurred the lines are between right and wrong when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s a painful portrayal of how people of colour are persecuted by the criminal justice system. What that does to families and marriages and individual lives is torture. In an interview with Oprah, who selected it for her book club, author Tayari Jones said, “To black Americans, mass incarceration is an ongoing threat, like hurricanes on the coast and earthquakes or fires in California. Prison can swoop in and snatch up the men in our families at any time. I decided to write about the collateral damage around that—what happens to families, to relationships, to dreams for the future. How does this social wrong translate into the everyday? As a novelist, it was that messy gray area I wanted to explore.” Oprah herself described An American Marriage as “an aha-moment-inducing tour de force—a love story and a stinging indictment of society’s injustices”.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
This is a book about three siblings in a British Pakistani family who are the children of a Jihadist. The brother is lost and vulnerable and takes up the call to follow in his father’s footsteps and join IS in Syria. His twin sister will do whatever it takes to save him while the older sister watches on as the lives of the two siblings she raised are careering towards disaster. Then into the drama comes the son of a prominent British-Pakistani Conservative politician. His father has the power to help but has turned his back on the concerns of his own people. It’s gripping and heartbreaking and provocative and it shows every side of the challenges for immigrant families trying to build lives in a different country. It’s also a window into what it’s like to never be able to move away from the legacy that you have inherited. Reading a book that delves into the motivation behind extremist behaviour and talks about terrorism, family loyalty and love is going to bring up some big thoughts and feelings for you and it’s worth going there. Hiding behind a ‘good guys and bad guys’ mentality is not okay in 2020. We can’t pretend that anything is that simple anymore.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Ifemelu grows up in Lagos, Nigeria before leaving her country and her childhood sweetheart Obinze behind to take up a place at Princeton University in the US. While there she has to confront issues of race and racial identity for the first time and what it means to be an African woman living in America as opposed to an African American woman and the different challenges and struggles that each entails. Obinze plans to join her but is prohibited from doing so after 9/11. He goes to London instead and so must also find his place in a foreign country with complex racial politics. Eventually they return to Nigeria and have to make sense of how they fit in back in their home country even though both they and it have changed in the intervening years. This is a book about how society and history shape how we feel about ourselves and our sense of belonging. We are none of us living outside of time and context and the privileges we have or haven’t been afforded. It’s a good moment to take a close look at that.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
If women ruled the world, would anything be different or does absolute power always corrupt absolutely? In this sci-fi re-imagining, women discover that they can deliver painful and sometimes even fatal electric shocks to anyone they want to and they start using this opportunity to both protect and emancipate themselves. Wonderful things start to happen like women who have been kept as sex slaves are now able to overpower their oppressors – but soon enough wanton acts of brutality are taking place hither and thither. The book is not a masterpiece of perfect prose, and criticism has been levelled about the crudely sketched characters but it is a great one for revealing where everyone stands on the feminism spectrum and whether people believe that the sexes are innately different or ultimately the same. If you think we’re all just humans and some of us naturally more nurturing, some inherently more aggressive, irrespective of sex, then maybe you’ll agree that if women were more powerful things would be no different? If you’ve been known to declare that ‘the world wouldn’t be so f**ked up if women were in charge’ is that because you think women are all the same, and fundamentally different to men? And if so, is that not a reductive argument in itself? It’s complicated but it’ll get you thinking.