Professor and author Deborah Lipstadt has made her name countering the slimy, hurtful acts of Holocaust deniers. It’s safe to say she has become the most well-known, and effective, person in defending the memory of Holocaust survivors, more so than even some institutions. Her voice has become one of authority and leadership in the push back against Holocaust denial and with it, antisemitism. In her new book, written as letters to a fictional Jewish college student and non-Jewish professor, she tackles the history and present of antisemitism head on, explaining how we got here and, in very helpful ways, how we should be in the face of the lingering, pestilent hatred and bigotry that is antisemitism.
In his memoir The Line Become a River, Francisco Cantu uses his experience as a Border Patrol agent to offer a dispiriting, shaming critique not just of the agency in which he served, but of our country’s policy, and attitude, on immigration along our southern border.
In his travelogue/adventure book The Tecate Journals, writer and teacher Keith Bowden explores not just the Rio Grande River, canoeing from El Paso to where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico, but the borderland culture on both sides as he encounters rapids, heat, cold, Border Patrol agents, strangers, friends, wildlife, portages and so much more.
I assume most of us would be embarrassed or ashamed to catalog our bookshelves or reading lists by race, nationality or ethnic background of authors. Still, one must make a conscious effort to expand reading horizons, to hear new voices, to live in worlds of words written by others different than ourselves. When it comes to books written by Native American, I must admit my reading history, particularly for fiction, is not nearly as robust as I’d like.
So there is a very welcome addition now thanks to the moving, powerful, dramatic novel There There by Tommy Orange. What I’ll remember most from this novel are the characters, their personal histories and various ways of identifying as Native American or Indian. The value in this novel lies far less on the plot — a disparate group of characters who for various reasons wind up attending a city-wide powwow in Oakland Coliseum — but hearing from these characters, and understanding their struggle and process in coping with their identity.
And it is identity, through and through, that is the crux and purpose of this novel. As a reader, simply being exposed to characters, young and old, voicing what it means to be Native American in 21st century America, is a revelation. It is not always a pretty picture, and many of the passages are difficult. We have looked away, as a society, from Native Americans. We have believed they live in history, a tragic, sad, horrific history, one that has benefited the generations of European descendants in this country. How many of us have set foot on a reservation? How many of us even know any Native Americans?
In some respects, many of the themes Orange focuses on are not particular to Native Americans. Substance abuse, poverty, limited and unequal access to education and housing — these issues are present (and prevalent) throughout both urban and rural communities in America. But here Orange does shed a spotlight, a prism, on these issues from the vantage point of Native Americans; even introducing the concept of urban Natives (a concept and idea new to me) is a way of reframing or educating (or updating or modernizing) what the reality of Native American life is today.
Orange tackles a lot here. In one interlude, in just a few pages, he catalogs the historical despair of Native Americans over the centuries. There is an undercurrent of anger and frustration in the novel. It comes from the characters themselves, and it comes through in their stories, their inability to get past the weight (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally) of carrying that cultural and historic sadness as part of your ethnic identity.
Another key concept here is that of gentrification, which the author ties directly to the characters’ struggle with poverty. We see an Oakland that is rapidly changing, we see disdain for those moving in and making it more difficult for the characters to find affordable housing — and stay there. Imbued in this concept is the ever-shifting reliance and lack of dependence on on a sense of place. These characters, through forces beyond their control, and sometimes through their own actions and mistakes, find themselves moving a lot. To new houses, to new cities, to new jobs, even to new families. That lack of security in place, in this context, is both modern and historic.
The novel’s ending is propulsive and dramatic. There is immense tragedy, which is not surprising: the readers sees and knows what is coming. That doesn’t make it any easier to get through or swallow. While in some respect the novel’s conclusion is all too American and common, that kind of violence is not, clearly, the type of American experience Native Americans (or anyone) would want to assimilate into their own community.
Alas, I wonder if the author feels or thinks that this violence is in some way inevitable, that the Native American experience, at least since Plymouth Rock, is rooted in upheaval, darkness, violence and sadness. For it to occur at a powwow is either symbolic or too heavy-handed; there is a stylistic choice that I think readers would respond to differently.
Same with the heavy load of characters and the constant shifting between them. At times it was difficult for me to catalog and remember who I was reading about and their specific histories.
But that is just another stylistic quibble on the author’s choice of artistic construction. What is more important here is the voice, or the voices, that you get exposed to from reading this novel. We read to learn more about the world around us, and that is particularly important when the world we read about is not reflective of our own.
For that experience I’m grateful for Mr. Orange and this novel.
Written as a letter to his son, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a breathtaking, honest, difficult, brutal, sincere book that functions as both a memoir and stinging social critique. Reviewing this book feels like a fruitless exercise in that there is little I can say bout Coates’ writing and perspective that could do justice to his own words.
An entire book dedicated to a single photograph may seem extreme, but not when that photo is the single most shared image in the history of mankind.
What are the stories we tell ourselves and others through memory? How do we use memory to reflect back on our stories, and the stories of others, to create the world around us, and to re-create the past? How far can we go in understanding someone else’s memory? And when we recall our memories, are we telling ourselves and other stories, or facts, or history, or some blend of the three?
Reading Wendell Berry’s nonfiction is more an exercise in thinking and philosophy than it is learning about his point of view on a particular topic. He can challenge your way of thinking on just about anything: feminism, technology, conservation, work and labor, academia, ecology, sociology and urbanization, farm life, small town life, community, nature.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction, scientist Elizabeth Kolbert makes a compelling, moving and at times depressing case that not only are we in a new geologic period, the anthropocene, but that this period represents catastrophic levels of extinction for plant and animal species across the planet.
Some books are like eating vegetables: you may not got excited about them, you may not enjoy each bite, but you know they are good for you. In Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we, as American citizens, are given a buffet’s worth of vegetables that is unflinching, unafraid, unabashed and painfully honest about what life is like in American’s poorest neighborhoods. You will not feel better about our country and society after reading this book, which is all the more reason you should force it down.