This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volumes One through Eleven for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.
Have I told y’all about Scout’s and my book club? About 18 months ago, we gathered some of our favorite New York lady friends, brought together by a love of reading and a hunger to unpack and discuss the things we read (yes, we are a bunch of nerds). We had only a few rules: We would meet on Sundays, over brunch, with a rotating schedule of hostesses; we would alternate fiction and nonfiction; and we would only read books by women or people of color.
Now we weren’t saying men don’t produce good work: There are plenty of wonderful books out there written by white dudes that I absolutely adore. But there continues to be such an imbalance in the canon, especially when it comes to women writers of color, that for this one part of our literary diet, we wanted to be intentional and seek out the stories that the patriarchy doesn’t tell. This is not to say that white men are incapable, as a rule, of inhabiting the mind or story of someone who doesn’t look like them. Part of the magic of books — whether you’re reading or writing them — is that they can transport you into another’s shoes, expanding your imagination and your capacity for empathy. But there is something different about a story told from experience, a note of truth that rings clear on every page. And since for so long women and marginalized communities’ stories were told only through the lens of a privileged white man, well-intentioned though they might have been, in an age when it is now possible, I would rather go straight to the source.
It’s turned out to be far easier than we expected to stick to our rule, in large part thanks to the bounty of diverse voices that have finally started to gain visibility over the past several years. And I was surprised to find our policy influencing my picks outside of our club, too. Of the 35 books I’ve read so far this year, 27 were by women. And of the male authors on my list, only three were white. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but I think once you start to pay attention to where your media is coming from, it becomes harder not to take it into account when choosing what book (or TV show, or podcast, or music) to devote your time to.
I don’t think one should dismiss a book just because it was written by a man, or by a white person, or by anyone who falls in a particular category. I’m a firm believer that a good story is a good story no matter where it comes from or what form it takes, and the best way to read is widely and voraciously. But I do think there is value in lifting up voices that have been silenced for far too long, particularly when trying to understand a region that has done a lot of the marginalizing. So for this Southern edition of “Required Reading,” I’ve picked some of my favorite recent reads (and one book still on my to-read-shelf) by African American women. I will never know what it is like to be black in the South. The best I can do is to listen to those who do know, with an open heart and an open mind. These books help me do that.
Classic: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
When It Was Published: 1982
When I Read It: This past spring, in my bed, with tears streaming down my face
Where It Takes Place: Georgia, and a little bit of Tennessee and Africa
Why I Love It: I sometimes have a roadblock in my head, common to many who have emerged from our country’s elementary educational system, that dismisses books traditionally incorporated into high school curricula as stodgy or boring and stops me from reading them. Now I loved many of the books I read for school — “The Great Gatsby,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” just to name a few — so I don’t know why it is that at age 28 when I encounter a book that smacks of term papers or CliffsNotes, something in me resists. Maybe it’s just an innate urge to rebel, that squirming away from something one is being told to do. I’m an adult, after all. I will read what I like. But sometimes this resistance means I wait far longer than I should to enjoy a classic well-deserving of all the book reports devoted to its themes. This is one such case. I thought “The Color Purple” would feel musty, out-dated, even stale. And so I was left breathless (literally, because I was crying so hard at the end) by how urgent and contemporary and alive it was. Walker’s masterpiece is, first and foremost, a love story — a tale of marriages and sisters and friendships and coming to know oneself. The epistolary novel follows Celie from adolescence to old age, through abuse and grief and romance and sexual awakening. Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel in 1983, making her the first black woman to do so. And while it’s appalling that it took that long for that particular ceiling to crack, my god was she deserving. [Note: The musical adaptation is also brilliant, and I will forever regret that I did not see Cynthia Erivo’s Celie in person.]
Contemporary Fiction: An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
When It Was Published: 2018
When I Read It: This summer, on my roof (reading list success!)
Where It Takes Place: Small-town Louisiana and Atlanta, Georgia
Why I Love It: This was one of the entries on my 2018 summer reading list that I managed to check off, and boy am I glad I did. At the start of their story, Celestial and Roy seem like the embodiment of the perfect New South couple, having achieved marital and professional and educational and financial success despite their circumstances. Roy in particular feels untouchable, that he has vaulted himself out of the morass of structural racism that consumes so many black men in this country. So when a false accusation and a severe miscarriage of justice land him in prison, it is all the more shattering that the life he and Celestial have begun to build for themselves implodes. Jones expertly captures the love and agony and frustration and resentment and pride that infuse their marriage as it strains, and adapts, and breaks, and evolves — as well as the toll incarceration takes on the loved ones of those inside, and the crushingly hard work of rebuilding one’s life after release. Not every love story has a happy ending. But this one ends with hope.
Nonfiction: Men We Reaped
Author: Jesmyn Ward
When It Was Published: 2014
When I Read It: Also this summer, in a Friday night marathon session on my couch, for book club
Where It Takes Place: In and around Ward’s hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, plus sprinklings of California and New York
Why I Love It: I’ve written here before about my deep love for Jesmyn Ward: her stunning ability to conjure character and place, her visceral prose, her vibrant dialogue. So when another member of our club suggested Ward’s memoir, which had long sat on my to-read list, I was thrilled. This is not an easy read, to be sure. The book grapples with five years in Ward’s life during which she lost five young black men close to her, starting with her younger brother. It’s structured like a literary “Last Five Years,” with chapters moving forward through Ward’s life — from her parents’ courtship to her own childhood all the way up to her years at Stanford and the University of Michigan and beyond — alternating with the stories of each man’s life and death, moving backwards chronologically and culminating with the death of her brother at the hands of a (white, rich, unpunished) drunk driver. Ward wrestles with trauma both personal and communal, the systemic injustices that stalk her community and pick off its youth one by one. It should be required reading for everyone.
To Read: Citizen: An American Lyric
Author: Claudia Rankine
When It Was Published: 2014
Where It Takes Place: The American South and beyond
Why It’s Awesome: I don’t read as much poetry as I would like to, and I think this meditation on race would be a good place to start. There are some experiences that strain against the confines of prose. In his review of the book for The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson compared Rankine to Walt Whitman, calling the volume “one of those American art works that equip us to do without it. It teaches us to ‘no longer take things at second and third hand,’ as Whitman wrote, to ‘listen to all sides and filter them from your self.'” We could all benefit from more listening in these times. When the cacophony of outrage becomes overwhelming, books have always been both my refuge and my wrestling mat. It is through reading and writing that I tangle with the issues the keep me up at night. I hope Rankine’s words might teach me how to be a better citizen of this nation.