You Are What You Read

July 5, 2015

By the third synopsis I'd given to my friend about what I had recently read, her eyebrows furrowed and she looked worried. "God! Don't you read any happy books?" I just finished Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a novel that made my stomach hurt (so good), and I couldn't wait to gush about it. Ng seamlessly weaves the stories of each member of the Lee family, who are Chinese American and bi-racial.

 If it's not obvious, the children of immigrants storyline is naturally appealing to me. And as an emerging writer, I was drawn to a fellow writer of color and woman.


Before that, I'd read Allison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home, another heart-breaker. I've discovered that I mostly enjoy consuming personal memoir in this form; it's quite a powerful, intimate window into a writer's life. It's like watching a black-and-white film that is gritty and somehow more real than technicolor. Bechdel approaches her family's dysfunctional past without sentimentality, yet with a tenderness that comes once we've gained enough distance to look back on people who've been responsible for the greatest love

 and pain we continue to feel as adults. That it's been adapted into a Tony award-winning musical is quite a testament to its power over readers. For the daughter of an alcoholic and gambling father and a mentally disturbed

mother, this book made me feel less alone and less indulgent in blaming, and more contemplative and understanding of my family's (cracked) foundation. 


Before that, on a road trip from North Dakota, I finished Room by Emma Donaghue. This one blew me away. I was immediately impressed by her treatment of the point of view of five-year-old Jack, the son of a kidnapped and captive woman in an 11x11-foot room. His sweet and precocious telling of the story was both unnerving and spectacular. No spoiler alerts--I'll only offer that, as a Palestinian and woman, I found this book spoke to a theme of displacement in the many compelling and haunting forms it takes. It also made me consider how we develop as human beings and the ways we learn to adapt. It's also damn suspenseful! 


As for my "native" list, as I call the Palestinian and Arab literary works, I ended the month of May with Out of It by Selma Dabbagh, and the graphic memoir Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazzaq. The first is a brilliant debut novel that follows three siblings navigating their political, intellectual, and personal identities in ravaged Gaza. The graphic memoir unravels Abdelrazzaq's father's journey out of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to the U.S. Both remind me, an adult of relative privilege, of my moral responsibilities. 


So my motivation for selecting these particular titles is clear: 

I identify with particular themes and characters. They somehow are a splendid commentary on my own experiences. As a literary critic, Vladimir Nabokov might have roiled in contempt as he believed readers should not seek to identify with characters in books they read. But, this fiat largely refers to great works of literature that might not directly relate to readers, but hold some artistic or transcendent value. Most of us get this: you should read widely and deeply though the characters are not mirrors of you, but windows into new and alien experiences, perhaps. 


Now back to the idea of a "happy book." Is there such a thing? I've always made the distinction between grim and hopeful books, but happy doesn't seem like a pertinent--or popularly manufactured--feature in works of fiction. Perhaps nonfiction might be more apt at capturing "happy." Yet happy still doesn't actually exist except in relation to unhappy which most writers tend to recount before getting to the happy. And there's a difference between a happy, uplifting book and a book that makes you feel happy as Elisabeth Mahoney of The Guardian reveals in her list of books. I think most of us voracious readers find limitless joy in the act of reading, but our selections are indomitably books with emotional, psychological, and physical challenges...and these don't always yield a happy ending. My dear friend, Cyn Vargas, amplifies this in her beautifully painful debut collection On the Way, in which characters lose and gain and lose once more.


But, we keep choosing this kind of book because we're interested in the human condition in whatever genre it manifests (realism, sci-fi, speculative, etc.). And it's not always a pretty picture. 


Now I'm moving on to Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife and James Baldwin: Collected Essays. I've been pairing a work of fiction with nonfiction this summer, with no particular conjoining theme. These come from a list I'd solicited from my wonderful family and friends which I compiled in a previous blog


So will I shun happy readings? Not at all--that's what Facebook is for: I get to read the wonderful happenings in my friends' and family's lives, sweetly punctated by adorable emojees. There's still plenty of happy if I ever need a dose.

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