In Book Swap, a Reader staffer recommends two to five books and then asks a local wordsmith, literary enthusiast, or publishing-adjacent professional to do the same. In this installment, Reader staff writer Maya Dukmasova swaps book suggestions with activist and organizer Mariame Kaba.
Maya Dukmasova, Reader staff writer
I’m a slow reader and rarely find time to pick up books unrelated to my Reader beats. But lately my therapist has been recommending titles, books I probably wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to pick up on my own. They are about the most fundamental relationships in our lives—the ones that set the tone for all that comes after and our relationship to the world within and outside ourselves.
One was Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). It’s a graphic novel sequel to her much more famous Fun Home, and, frankly, it’s much better. While Fun Home was all about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, this book is about her mom and an unsettling and thought-provoking meditation on the perils of daughterhood. The narrative doesn’t emerge from any chronological story line but rather from concentric circles of self-cannibalizing thoughts that somehow, over the course of the book, lead to new conclusions. Bechdel never does figure out her mom (as I think is the case for most of us), but she somehow finds peace and relief from the anxiety of long-held grievances against her. It’s surprisingly soothing to witness her getting there as a third-party reader-observer. Not only will the book get you thinking deeply about your own relationship with your mother, but it’s also an excellent primer on psychological theories of child development that serve to explain so much about our adult lives. Bechdel’s grayscale drawings are accented only by shades of pink, and they powerfully render much of the conceptual, inarticulable content of her thoughts and experiences into concrete gestures, espressions, and actions.
The second book my therapist encouraged me to read is All About Love: New Visions (William Morrow, 1999) by Bell Hooks. Turns out it’s not a favorite among some die-hard Hooks fans, but I’m ashamed to say it’s the first book I’ve ever picked up by the legendary feminist critic and scholar. I’ve never before considered all of the assumptions that go into the concept of love—assumptions we never discuss or dissect or challenge. The goal of the book is to pick apart what exactly love means and to gently untangle ideas about love from those about caring, about responsibility, about desire or fear. Hooks posits that the cycle of pain, misunderstanding, and lovelessness that animates not only our lives but also our society begins with a fundamental misconception about what it means to love and to be loved. She delivers her message in terse, thematic chapters that present her revelations about love through pointed personal anecdotes and well-curated references to other academic and literary work. If you don’t come away with a transformed mindset, you’ll at least have an exciting new reading list.
Mariame Kaba, activist and organizer
I’ve spent a lot of time reading this summer and fall, which is surprising given how busy I’ve been with work.
I’m a huge admirer of Lorraine Hansberry, so I rushed to pick up a copy of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon Press, 2018), a new biography written by the brilliant Imani Perry. I was not disappointed by this book. It’s beautifully written and covers Lorraine’s short but incredibly full life, from her childhood in Chicago to her abbreviated college years in Wisconsin through to her success in New York City. Hansberry was part of most of the significant radical movements of the early-to-mid-20th century including communism, socialism, and the black freedom struggle. The violence of racism, homophobia, and sexism is ever-present in her life, but she is not defeated by the forces of oppression. Instead, she courageously confronts them. Perry captures her self-doubt and her confidence. Hansberry was ahead of her time in so many ways.
This is an unconventional biography, as Perry doesn’t shy away from sharing parts of her own life and journey too. Rather than detracting from Lorraine’s story, that literary device adds to the readability of this book. Too little is known about Hansberry’s life. When people talk about her, they usually focus on her play Raisin in the Sun, but Looking for Lorraine underscores the fact that there’s so much more to her than that one play. In the current era of people talking about citing black women and elevating black women’s intellectual contributions alongside our organizing, this book is essential.
My friend Ann Russo has a new book out titled Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power (NYU Press, 2018). It’s another perfect book for our current historical moment. The word “accountability” has become a buzzword in this #MeToo moment. Yet the concept is poorly understood. Russo explores the praxis of accountability as a feminist, a scholar, a practitioner of transformative justice, and an internationalist. This book is a useful primer for those who want an introduction to the concepts of transformative justice and community accountability. As we consider how to support people who cause harm to take responsibility for their actions, we need more clarity about how to do that without relying on the punishing state. This book helps us to formulate better questions as we strive not to replicate the limitations of carceral feminism, which tries to end violence by relying on the violence of the prison industrial complex. We need more books that focus nonpunitive ways to address harm. Feminist Accountability is wonderfully readable and a great addition to the canon. v