#readingwednesday: small wonder

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For someone who reads and writes as much as I do, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that most of the time, when someone asks me who my favorite author is, I don’t have an immediate answer.

There are lots of authors I enjoy, even some whose works I run out to buy as soon as a new one hits the shelves–Jhumpa Lahiri, Lynn Flewelling, Margaret Atwood. And then there are the authors who are no longer with us or no longer writing–Octavia E. Butler, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett. But it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.

Barbara Kingsolver is the favorite author I always forget I have.

“What you hold in your hands right now, beneath these words, is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, a place.”

I read my first Kingsolver novel, The Bean Trees–which was also Kingsolver’s first novel, written in 1988–my sophomore year of high school, when it was assigned reading for my honors English class. It was one of the more enjoyable books we read that year, a spark of rough-spun, heartland humanity in a class full of Edith Wharton and Earnest Hemingway. I liked just about the whole thing, from the characters to the themes to the earnest relationships between the characters, but I was a busy overachiever in high school, so I wrote the requisite essays, gave my school-issued copy of the book back to my teacher, and moved on to the next project. The Bean Trees was fun, but I didn’t have time to mull over it.

I didn’t read more Kingsolver until college, when I picked up a copy of Prodigal Summer at a library book sale with my mother. I read it outside on the great lawn when I got back to school, and as I read, realized that Kingsolver novels are meant to be read outside–Kingsolver is a biologist by education, and her books hum and vibrate with an organic, natural energy that sounds like rustling trees and the flutter of wings. Since that reading, out on the lawn with the buzz of college energy around me and the smell of new grass clinging to my skin, I’ve made it a point to re-read Prodigal Summer each year, sometime between spring and summer, while the world is bright with life and birth. I’ve added a few more of her novels to my shelf, too–Poisonwood BiblePigs in Heaven, and my very on copy of that first foray into her writing, The Bean Trees.

“Sometimes I’ve survived anger only one minute at a time, by saying to myself again and again that the best kind of revenge is some kind of life beyond this, some kind of goodness. And I can lay no claim to goodness until I can prove that mean people have not made me mean.”

This was my first full reading of Small Wonder, a collection of essays Kingsolver published in 2002. I gave it a try last year, but life was busy and overwhelming, and I put it away in favor of easier, more relaxing reads. This time around, I read it mornings and evenings during my commute, with nature sounds playing through my earbuds, and was actually able to enjoy it.

Kingsolver includes over twenty essays in this book, with topics ranging from gardening to motherhood to sexuality to writing to patriotism to environmentalism, and just about anything in between. She writes with an organic sort of energy that makes the words vibrate on the page, but her words are heartfelt, too, simultaneously heavy with the weight of her experiences and light with the strength of her idealism. Her essays range from exploratory to persuasive to almost open letter formats, and their target audiences almost seem to vary. But even though they can be a bit self-indulgent at times–and what writer doesn’t get a little self-indulgent at times? not this one, that’s for sure–they have a warmth that, at least for me, overcomes the occasional eye-rolling moment. Small Wonder will, almost certainly, join Prodigal Summer for an annual re-read.

“Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders, where they grow.”

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#readingwednesday: the buddha in the attick

Happy Women’s History (Herstory?) Month, y’all! Which actually started last week, but I was a mess last week, so here we are.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a pretty distinct trend in my reading choices–more specifically, that I’ve been picking up more and more books by women, and fewer and fewer books written by men. To be fully honest, this hasn’t been an accident. Bestseller lists tend to trend white and straight and male, and after so many years of reading stories about white dudes doing stuff and having feelings about it, I’ve been ready for–and have embraced–something new. In 2015, ignoring the slew of angry internet commenters crying about reverse racism and sexism , I joined a number of other readers in making a pledge to focus my reading on books written by queer authors, female authors, and authors of color, and found myself having a completely new experience. This Women’s History Month, I wanted to put my intersectional feminist money (or at least my intersectional feminist library card) where my intersectional feminist mouth is, and explore stories written by queer women, trans women, disabled women, women of color–all of the women whose stories are silenced even more than those of cis straight white women, whose stories receive plenty of silencing of their own. Some of the books I’ve already read this year have given me lessons in checking my privilege and listening to voices more marginalized than mine , and I find myself almost looking forward to that discomfort, because I know that discomfort is the gateway to learning, and more importantly, to unlearning the messages of power and historical erasure that I’ve spent my young adulthood trying to dismantle and recover.

I checked out Bustle’s 2016 reading challenge for ideas and hit the library, and from the first book I’ve cracked open, I’m already glad that this was the choice I made. There is just something different, I’ve found, about reading a book written from the perspective of someone who has been marginalized, even if the book itself has nothing to do with that experience. Something about moving through the world with the knowledge that this world isn’t designed for your comfort and your experience changes the way the words sit on the page, gives them a different sort of weight.

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Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is a book like this.  This is Otsuka’s second novel, and I read the first, When the Emperor was Divine, for an undergraduate class about Asian American women and literature. Whereas When the Emperor was Divine is more of a traditional novel, The Buddha in the Attic reads more like an epic poem. There are no real characters to speak of; we don’t learn the names of the women whose pain and fear and anger and heartbreak spills across the pages. The book follows a group of Japanese picture brides, the generation of women brought from Japan to San Francisco with pictures of their new husbands, whom they had never met in person, clutched in their hands, through their arrival in San Francisco, their forced assimilation into a culture that doesn’t welcome them, their experiences of sex, of childbirth, of motherhood, all achingly woven together through the eight sections of the novel.

Etsuko was given the name Esther by her teacher, Mr. Slater, on her first day of school. “It’s his mother’s name,” she explained. To which we replied, “So is yours.”

Told in first-person plural–a distinctly weird point of view that, I’ll be honest, kind of turned me off at first, but I stuck with it–the book draws you in by folding you into the group of women on the boat. From the first line, On the boat we were mostly virgins, Otsuka sets a scene not through picturesque imagery or flowery text but through simplicity and the immediate establishment of community and identity. This we is the binding force of the novel, and though some of us do this and some of us do that, there is always the we that pulls the group back together. This plural identity, the we, isn’t just the group of women in the story, but the we of these women in history, as the readers watch the book draw closer and closer to the age of World War II, to Pearl Harbor, to internment camps. The we is insular, it’s protective, it is we, as opposed to them.

The storytelling of we is powerful, more powerful than I expected when I started the book. So often we need an I to focus on in a story, a titular character or protagonist to anchor ourselves into a narrative. Otsuka pushes back against this construct and weaves us a story of many lives, many women, creating a community narrative of loss, homesickness, isolation, family, identity, and pain.

It would be autumn, and our fathers would be out threshing in the fields. We would walk through the mulberry groves, past the big loquat tree and the old lotus pond, where we used to catch tadpoles in the spring. Our dogs would come running up to us. Our neighbours would wave. Our mothers would be sitting by the well with their sleeves tied up, washing the evening’s rice. And when they saw us they would just stand up and stare. “Little girl,” they would say to us, “where in the world have you been?”

I’ve finished my first reading of this book, which unfortunately was split into two chunks, and I’ve been told that to get the full experience of this novella, it should be read straight through in one sitting. Reading the introductory chapter again in preparation to write this post, it’s easy to understand why. Otsuka’s writing has a poetic, almost lyrical quality to it, which almost makes you want to read the text out loud, or have it read to you. It gives the book a sense of an oral history, of a generation of women and girls crossing an ocean to what they believed would be a land of opportunity and promise and joyful life.

When I picked up this book, I was hoping for a story that would pull me into Women’s History Month with a story that would pull me into a history that wasn’t my own, to let me connect to women before me whose stories I wasn’t told in school or by my mother or grandmothers or aunts.

The Buddha in the Attic was that story and more.

And after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense. Some days we forget they were ever with us, although late at night they often surface, unexpectedly, in our dreams…And in the morning, when we wake, try as might to hang on to them, they do not linger long in our dreams…All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.