My monthly reading average jumped in June, including two by activist and abolitionist Angela Y. Davis, both of which I covered in my anti-racist reading series. I started my MFA at Antioch University, where the residency was on Zoom for ten consecutive days. Instead of slowing me down, I was happy to sit with a book in place of a screen at the end of each day, and I was especially happy to read the books discussed below.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World)
“The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.”
In her collection of piercing essays, Cathy Park Hong blends memoir and cultural criticism as she interrogates persistent manifestations of racism in the U.S. Hong defines minor feelings as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Using examples from literature, film, and the news cycle, Hong critiques the everyday emotional labor placed upon BIPOC, her experiences and expertise creating a language around minor feelings as an urgent facet of the present struggle against racism. I was especially challenged by the section on Moonrise Kingdom, where Hong revealed to me the cruel fantasy lurking underneath the surface of a seemingly innocent narrative.
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter (Two Dollar Radio)
This month’s Book Cult pick was one of the best yet. I am not exaggerating when I say it is one of my favorite novels of the last few years. In Sarah Rose Etter’s gorgeous, haunting novel, generations of women within a family are born with a knot on the exterior of their stomachs. Cassandra X wants to be untied from her physical and societal limitations, to tether herself to her desires: for intimacy, for her father’s respect, for a way out. Every bit of The Book of X has stuck to me all month, and I expect (and hope) it will continue to. You can listen to our playlist of dance-pop apocalypse here.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury)
“This is the last summer that I will spend with my brother. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”
I love Jesmyn Ward’s fiction, and she brings the same attention to detail—an act of love—to her memoir. Ward lost five men in her life within the span of just a few years. All five of them grew up with her, Black men in rural Mississippi, and Ward connects each of their stories with the larger social issues plaguing the area while never skewing from the specificity of their lives. She wonders at the “they” that cuts each life short: is it a wolf, a ghost, an entire nation, themselves? The answer is not simple, the grief unrelenting. “Every step was an exercise in loss,” she writes, and the book gradually moves through the loss of each man and culminating in the loss of her brother. Each page is an exercise in loss, and in the face of the overwhelming cruelty, Ward’s love for the five men and her larger community is an act of justice.
The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso (Picador)
“There are two kinds of decay,” Manguso writes, “mine and everyone else’s.” In her memoir about an autoimmune disease that derailed her life and threatened to take it, Manguso tells her narrative in vignettes that range from humorous to moving, casting doubt on the idea of a singular, chronological arc. As an entry into the chronic illness memoirs, Manguso expertly interrogates the very notion of recounting personal illness as story: Who is it for? What does it do? Ultimately, we learn not only about what plagued her and how, but what it means for each of us to live in relation to the “whole decay” of our lives approaching death.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown (Counterpoint)
“White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced.”
If you’re looking for something to read in your churches, schools, workplaces, or families to understand how the present movement for Black lives connects to your own spheres of influence, I recommend Austin Channing Brown’s personal narrative of affirming her Black dignity and humanity in white spaces that were well-meaning but still harmful, including school, church, and professional settings. She never minces words, and her justice-centered approach to confronting white supremacy in each of these spaces is something that I wish I had read much earlier in life but am nonetheless thankful for now: “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.” Read this in your book club, read this for yourself, and apply Channing Brown’s lessons everywhere you exist.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead Books)
In his debut novel, Brandon Taylor takes the campus novel sub-genre to new heights. Wallace is a graduate student in the Midwest, where his identity as a queer Black male is constantly negotiated against the overwhelming whiteness of his peers. His distance from his own group of friends is collapsed over the course of a summer where proximity gives way to revealing new intimacies and old animosities, revealing each character to themselves and each other. Taylor’s refusal to heroize anyone makes Real Life refreshingly complex in plot and theme, ultimately revealing the readers to ourselves.