Summer may be winding down, but just because the sunshine is dwindling doesn’t mean our reading lists have to do the same. Plus, what better way to escape from the injustices rampant in the news cycle (and the cold autumn rains) than with a good book?
Inspired in large part by Rewire.News podcast “What Else Happened?” and its question of what brings joy, I’m sharing some of the books that have brought me joy as I continue to report on stories of trauma, violence, resilience, and resistance in the country’s jails and prisons. Every few months, I’ll be writing about some of my favorites for Rewire.News readers, both to share some of that joy and to encourage folks to pick up these books. After all, how else can we as readers show publishers, bookstores, and libraries that people really do want to read books by women of color and that they should continue publishing and carrying them?
You can find reviews of some of the first 30 books I’ve read here, here and here. Here are a few more that have gotten me through blistering summer days, long subway rides, and continued aggravation over the state of the world.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions
In this hauntingly beautiful book, Luiselli recounts her time as a volunteer interpreter in 2015 for unaccompanied immigrant children in New York City’s immigration courts.
The book meditates on each question asked by Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials—all 40 of them. At times, the answers are gut-wrenching, a reality that Luiselli, who volunteered as she awaited approval of her own green card, acknowledges again and again. She hears stories of sexual assaults (more than 80 percent of women and girls are raped as they cross Mexico), abductions, violence from gangs and law enforcement, disappearances and deaths:
So when I have to ask children that seventh question—“Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?”—all I want to do is cover my face and my ears and disappear. But I know better, or try to. I remind myself to swallow the rage, grief, and shame; remind myself to just sit still and listen closely, in case a child does happen to reveal a particular detail that can end up being key to his or her defense against deportation.
This is not just horror story after horror story. Woven between each question and the children’s varied and inevitably horrifying answers, Luiselli provides context for why so many children are making the perilous trek north, including the role of U.S. policies and practices. “The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is often thought of as a Central American ‘gang violence’ problem that must be kept on the far side of the border. There is little said, [in public policy conversations] for example, of arms being trafficked from the United States into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the United States is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent.”
The title stems from a question that Luiselli’s young daughter asks her again and again: How does the story end? Three years later, with the speeding up of the deportation machine and the administration continuing to heartlessly tear apart families, we still don’t have an answer.
Carmen Aguirre, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter and Mexican Hooker #1: Art, Love and Forgiveness After Trauma
After the 1973 military coup overthrowing Chilean president Salvador Allende when Carmen Aguirre was 6 years old, Aguirre’s family fled the country. Five years later, the family returned to Latin America as part of the anti-Pinochet resistance.
“I hadn’t realized we were in the resistance,” Aguirre, who was only 11 at the time, recalled in her memoir. “I’d just thought we were in solidarity with the resistance.” She and her younger sister learned to blend in, posing as Canadian rich girls and mingling with their affluent classmates, first in Peru and then Bolivia and Argentina. At the same time, the family secretly housed other members of the resistance, many of whom bore the scars of torture. Aguirre and her sister learned to live with her mother’s and stepfather’s frequent disappearances as the couple, both on Chile’s banned lists, plot clandestine routes into the country.
Something Fierce isn’t simply a childhood memoir of code-switching. Aguirre also explains the political contexts of each country where she and her family lived, including the ways in which financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund decimate social services and safety nets throughout Latin America and the very real impact their mandates had on her poorer classmates and neighbors.
At the same time, she recounts her own childhood escapades of teenage love, heartbreak, and the lies constantly told to keep her family—and movement—safe. At 18, Aguirre herself joins the movement, embarking upon her own clandestine activities in the hopes of overthrowing the dictatorship and establishing a democracy free of neoliberal constraints.
At 18, at the behest of the resistance, Aguirre and her boyfriend, another member of the underground, got married and threw themselves into the struggle. In her memoir, she reflects on their constant fear—and their inability to express it, even to each other: “We lived in a state of terror, and it was unrevolutionary to feel it, let alone speak of it. I tried to be a hero, but I was just the opposite: a teenager fucking up all over the place who wanted to give everything to the struggle.” (Spoiler: Although Pinochet was removed as president, the constitution he had installed in 1980 gave him immunity from ever being tried for crimes against humanity in Chile.)
The resistance that Aguirre and her young husband joined disbanded before Pinochet was removed, a dissolution that left Aguirre floundering for what to do next. We almost never hear about what people do after the movements to which they dedicated their lives dissolve in the face of defeat. That’s why I initially picked up Aguirre’s follow-up Mexican Hooker #1. (The title refers to a warning that one of Aguirre’s acting teachers gave her when she first began studying the craft—that, as a Latina, she might be limited to stereotypes like maids and Mexican sex workers.)
In Mexican Hooker, Aguirre doesn’t just detail her activity after her movement work. She also writes about the childhood trauma she doesn’t mention in her first memoir—being sexually assaulted in the woods. She ruminates that her mother and stepfather sent her and her sister to live in Canada “to keep us safe from the perils of life in the underground in Bolivia. Within nine months of our return, I’d been raped.”
The rape itself dances around the edges of her memories. Aguirre recounts its impact upon her actions and relationships, but doesn’t describe what happened until page 161. Her family, full of revolutionaries ready to give their lives to overthrow Pinochet, flounders in the wake of her attack: “Both [my mother and stepfather] knew how to fight for humanity’s basic human rights: food, water, shelter, medical care. Figuring out how to provide emotional support for their raped daughter did not propel them into action the way the revolution did. On the contrary, it immobilized them, silenced them, left their lungs devoid of breath. ‘Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t breathe’ had not only been my survival psalm during the rape itself, it became theirs in the aftermath.” The second half of Aguirre’s second memoir recounts her struggles to heal (including efforts to lose herself in her own revolutionary underground work as well as restorative justice meetings to try to find closure).
Sheena Kamal, The Lost Ones
I really enjoy mysteries where the protagonists aren’t detectives or some kind of law enforcement. Nora Watts is exactly the opposite of the stereotypical hard-boiled PI. She’s a near-homeless researcher who secretly lives in the basement below her bosses’ office. She’s also a recovering alcoholic who, once upon a time, gave up her newborn and never looked back. But shortly before 5 a.m. one morning, her daughter’s adoptive father calls and asks her to look into the teenager’s disappearance.
Kamal weaves in the mystery of the missing girl with commentary on Canada’s political and social landscapes. Nora’s father was First Nations (though long dead by the time the novel opens); as Nora searches for the missing girl, she reflects that her biological daughter is merely one of a thousand missing and murdered First Nations women that no one else, including the government and law enforcement, seems to care about. Her quest leads her to dig deeper into environmental exploitation—both at home and abroad. Along the way, she finds more dead bodies than she’d bargained for—and links to her own past that she had thought long buried.
Kirstin Chen, Bury What We Cannot Take
This English-language novel set in Hong Kong is a particularly captivating read. Though brimming with descriptions of historical injustices and the desperation of characters facing dwindling opportunities, it also depicts how (fictional) people survived under a repressive regime. And it brings readers the sights, sounds, and stenches of 1950s China and Hong Kong.
In the summer of 1957, 9-year-old San San and her 12-year-old brother Ah Liam come home just as their grandmother smashes a framed portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer. It’s a portrait that every household is required to have and smashing it provokes dire consequences. 1957 marks the start of China’s Anti-Rightist movement, ostensibly to purge opponents of the Communist revolution. Family members and neighbors report each other for acts varying from wearing brightly colored blouses, to reading foreign novels, to acts of disloyalty to the Communist Party. Children are encouraged to inform on their elders. At school, Ah Liam reports his grandmother’s act: a move that forces the family to flee to Hong Kong, where the children’s father operates a factory.
But not everyone is allowed to leave. To obtain exit visas, San San’s mother concocts a story that her husband has fallen ill. The government official she’s attempting to deceive forces her to leave San San behind in China, a guarantee that the family will return. Shortly after, however, the government halts all exit visas and San San remains separated from her family. Her mother scours Hong Kong searching for a way to bring her daughter over, while her father struggles to balance the arrival of his family, the absence of his daughter, the demands of his pregnant mistress, his failing business, and loan shark debts.
Guadalupe Garcia McCall, All the Stars Denied
What’s the saying about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it? I hadn’t known anything about the mass deportations (or “repatriation”) of Texas’s Mexican-Americans (or Tejanos) during the Great Depression until I picked up McCall’s latest novel. It wasn’t taught in my high school or even college history classes; I suspect the same holds true for most U.S. students.
The drought of the Dust Bowl and the Depression are fanning the flames of white farmers’ resentment against their Tejano neighbors. Signs go up around town announcing, “No dogs or Mexicans” and “No Mexicans allowed.” Local (white) law enforcement conduct regular round-ups of Tejanos—who, despite being U.S. citizens, are deported to Mexico. When teenage Estrella organizes a protest against this treatment, her family is targeted for repatriation. Their home is set on fire and, in the chaos that ensues, they too are swept up, separated and dumped across the border. Estrella, her mother, and her infant brother shiver in an increasingly overcrowded and squalid farmyard-turned-refugee camp awaiting the arrival of a train bound for Mexico City, where they hope to find Estrella’s father and a way to return home.
I’ve read 44 books by women of color this year. What else would you recommend adding to my to-read list?