2016 was a rough year for the world. But to say it was rough for marginalized groups in the United States such as the LGBTQ community, people of color, or women, is a massive understatement. Between the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, a never-ending stream of police brutality, and the election of a president who has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate blatant disrespect for women, it’s safe to say we have a lot to learn in terms of equality.
These horrible events and the many more that occurred over the course of this year took a serious toll on my mental health. My normally manageable level of anxiety shot through the roof and I felt a sadness that I haven’t even felt during tragedies in my personal life. Aside from unending support from my loved ones, several orders of Domino’s cheesy bread, and new episodes of Shameless, one of my greatest coping mechanisms through it all has been reading books; chewing on new ideas and swallowing words whole. At some point I realized that if I ever want to take part in changing the things that drive me crazy, I need to first understand them as fully as I can. So I sought to learn about the issues that mattered most to me this year- LGBTQ rights, racism, and feminism- through reading. The following ten books helped me educate myself in some way, making the bitter pill of 2016 a little easier to swallow.
10. Oddly Normal by John Schwartz
“It will mean everything to him to reveal himself to you: it will take courage and determination. So. Don’t. Screw. It. Up.”
In short, Oddly Normal is a father’s story of navigating the possibility that his son might be gay. Schwartz details every step on the road to his son, Joseph’s coming out, throughout his early childhood and grade school years. Though Schwartz, a New York Times correspondent, is clearly a talented writer who speaks about his son with grace and compassion, I was slightly hesitant to include this one on my list. As a queer person, I found a lot of faults in Schwartz’s logic about what it means to be LGBTQ. In a reverse sort of way, reading about LGBTQ issues from the viewpoint of a straight, white man, helped me better understand some of the flawed thinking of straight, white men. As I wrote in my quick review of Oddly Normal on Goodreads, I was waiting for the author to clarify that A. being gay was not the cause of all of his son’s issues growing up, B. just because a child plays with toys or wears clothes that people typically associate with the opposite gender, it does not automatically mean they are LGBTQ, and C. the correlation between depression/suicide rates and LGBTQ youth does not always exist BECAUSE they are LGBTQ, but because of the discrimination and lack of acceptance they face from others.
So why did I REALLY include it in this list? There are two demographics who I believe could greatly benefit from reading this book: parents and educators. Though Schwartz feeds into some of the silly stereotypes of homosexuality, he does make it clear that as a parent, it’s his job to love his children no matter what. Parents who think their children may be LGBTQ or parents of kids who have recently come out could really learn something from this easy-to-read memoir full of humor and grace. In addition, almost the entire first half of Oddly Normal details the struggles Schwartz and his family face with Joseph’s schools, from teachers unwilling to offer support for his behavioral issues to administrators unwilling to offer Gay Straight Alliances or other clubs inclusive of LGBTQ youth. These parts of Joseph’s journey to self-discovery could serve as a How-Not-To guide for educators across the country.
9. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
“Sexual assault, like torture, is an attack on a victim’s right to bodily integrity, to self-determination and self-expression. It’s annihilatory, silencing. It intends to rub out the voice and rights of the victim, who must rise up out of that annihilation to speak.”
Let me begin by saying that Men Explain Things to Me is not an uplifting book, and it shouldn’t be. Solnit tackles almost every aspect of the ongoing issues of violence and sexual assault against women and she does so with a smart mixture of hard facts and an unrelenting urgency for change. Take for instance, a strong point she makes about the epidemic of domestic violence against women in her essay, “The Longest War”: “The more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides between 9/11 and 2012 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the ‘War on Terror’. If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, then we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or male roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.”
To put it plainly, Solnit really knows her shit. She’s been a writer and an activist for quite a while now, and her knowledge shines through each essay in Men Explain Things to Me. What I liked about this collection was the fact that I could skip around. Though her essays are connected by the overall theme, I ran into one or two on historical topics (such as Virginia Woolf) that didn’t hold my attention, but it didn’t hinder my understanding of the book as a whole to skip them. If you aren’t going to read the entire collection, at least read the famous essay that inspired the title of the collection. It perfectly encapsulates the slippery slope of men constantly trying to silence women, whether it’s by talking over them or sexually assaulting them.
8. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond
“Untold numbers of women have surely found that our current sexual theories leave their own experiences unexplained: a person they inexplicitly loved and cannot forget; a summer when everything changed; dreams and fantasies that do not fit; memories of a different self, long ago; expectations of a different self in the future.”
In a world that’s so overly concerned about slapping a label on me because of who I love and who I’ve had relationships with in the past, Sexual Fluidity was a breath of fresh air, a relief. Diamond explores, in great depth, the idea that women are not bound to one sexuality their entire lives, but rather that through various experiences and relationships, our sexuality is fluid, or capable of change. She walks us through the stages of her study on sexual fluidity which followed the same group of women over a series of years, who she met with periodically to discuss relationship statuses, feelings they were having toward different genders, and what label they felt they fell under, if any.
This book is dense, but direct quotes and stories from members of the study really help to break it up enough to make you want to keep reading. Diamond offers a strong argument on sexual orientation and successfully addresses other ideals such as the Kinsey Scale or biological theories, without dismissing them. I’d like to shove this book in the face of everyone who asks “So..like..what are you?”
7. Shrill by Lindy West
“Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time — that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.”
Shrill introduced me to a world I had zero knowledge of: the world of woman-hating internet trolls. But West’s book is much more than that. Within the very first pages, I was literally laughing out loud as she begins with a list of her only role models growing up as an overweight girl, including Disney characters such as Ursula the Seawitch and the Queen of Hearts. Though her essays are written with plenty of wit and comedy, each has a genuine message, whether it be about society’s expectations of women, being threatened with rape over the internet, or the right to make our own decisions about our own bodies. Shrill truly was a “page-turner” and I finished it quicker than any other book this year, which is not to say it wasn’t equally as packed with knowledge from a talented, kick-ass writer.
6. The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward
“There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.”
This phenomenal collection inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, explores various aspects of racism in America in three organized sections: past, present, and future. It serves as a striking reminder that while some progress has been made, our country has a long, long way to go in terms of racial equality and letting go of a tight grip on the ways of the past. If Garnette Cadogan’s essay on what it means to walk the streets of America as a black man or Wendy S. Walters’ tale of searching for the burial grounds of slaves in New England which have been paved over and forgotten don’t make you stop and check your privilege, I’m afraid nothing will.
5. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
“If it’s a phase, so what? If it’s your whole life, who cares? You’re destined to evolve and understand yourself in ways you never imagined before.”
Because my main focus this year was reading to learn more about the issues I care about, fiction took a backseat on my bookshelves as I mostly delved into memoirs, essays, and other non-fiction. Juliet Takes a Breath was one of only two novels I read in 2016 and I’m so glad I did. It goes without saying that a simple story written from a perspective you’re unfamiliar with can teach you just as much as a non-fiction piece, and that rings 100% true for me with this book. Rivera develops an incredible, complicated, yet simple character in Juliet Milagros Palante, a recently out Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx who moves to Portland, Oregon for a summer internship with a feminist, super spiritual white lady. Juliet Takes a Breath offers a true, unforgiving narrative from the point of view of a queer person of color that left me wanting zero redemption for the white lady.
4. This Book is Gay by James Dawson
“Things No One Says Ever: When did you realize you were straight? Does your mom know you’re straight? When you have straight sex, is one of you the woman? I have a straight friend- would you like me to set you up on a date? It was so much fun- we went dancing at a straight club! I went to the cutest straight wedding this weekend.”
I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, transgender, 13 years old and questioning your sexuality, 22 and about to come out, 45 with an LGBTQ child or relative; READ THIS BOOK. As I said in my original review of This Book is Gay, Dawson educates readers using humor that’s not aimed at any specific demographic, but can be appreciated by people of all ages, sexual identities, and backgrounds.
Information is made convenient as the book does not require you to read from front to back, each and every chapter in order. For instance, maybe you’ve recently entered your first committed gay relationship, and are looking to better understand yourself/your relationship, but you certainly are not searching for new people to date. You might completely skip Chapter 8: Where to meet people like you, and still gain a plethora of knowledge you previously lacked. And hello! Pictures and charts! For those who struggle to sit through long chunks of text, you’re in luck. Each chapter is broken up by funny little doodles and often times, charts to break down surveys, statistics, and information more clearly (or sarcastically). It’s easy to think you know all there is to know when you’re part of a certain community, but This Book is Gay taught me so much more about LGBTQ rights, sex, and culture than I ever knew before.
3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’”
As an English major and now, an English teacher, I tore through Between the World and Me not just because of its important messages on race, police brutality, the flaws of the education system, and more, but because Coates’ writing is hands down some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. The way he weaves words together in this intricate, long-winded letter to his son is unique and eye-opening. No white person will ever fully understand the hell that people of color experience on a daily basis, but it’s books like these that call for examining your privilege, considering what you do to perpetuate racist culture, and making a change.
2. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
“Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”
In college, I learned to think critically about literature. In real life, I learned to think critically about the world around me because of Bad Feminist. I read this book very early on in 2016 and I am confident it’s a big part of the reason I spent the rest of the year wanting to read and write more essays that challenge our culture’s views on and reactions to feminism, rape culture, racism, body shaming, queerness, and everything in between.
Gay constructs arguments intelligently and confidently so as the reader, even if you don’t completely agree with each and every opinion, you respect them. In past reviews, the collection has often been criticized for its lack of cohesion or the fact that the essays don’t all “flow” with one another. However, I found that the variety of topics Gay was able to address in this book is part of what made it so enjoyable and simultaneously informative. Her essays on topics from the gang rape of an 11 year old girl in Texas to the misrepresentation of white and black interactions in movies such as The Help and Django Unchained only demonstrate her versatility as writer, but challenge readers’ to look deeper into any and everything in front of them.
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
“I’m too old to go to America now. Too old for revolution. Besides, if we go to the white man for school, we will just learn the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free.”
Crazy right? That I only read two novels all year and one of them taught me more than any of the countless non-fiction books I read? Homegoing blew my mind. Gyasi tells the story of several generations of a family tree whose roots begin in Africa and whose leaves end up at a college in California. Each chapter focuses on the next descendant of separated half-sisters Effia, who marries an Englishman and remains on the Gold Coast in Ghana, and Esi, who is sold into slavery and shipped to America. This book answers one of the most important questions on the topic of racism: Where did it all begin?
Homegoing reads like a collection of short stories, each one connected to the last, with rich narratives and richer characters. But even more than that, it is a frustrating, yet truthful exploration of racism, how it has trickled down from early ideals of white supremacy and slavery, and how it has evolved over the years without ever disappearing.
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