My book club and I may be a teensy bit too long in the tooth to be campfire girls. But nevertheless, on Saturday, we gathered round the campfire at our friend Pam’s cottage to discuss books, namely the first two books on our current Black Lives Matter reading list. We had a beautiful, sunny, crisp fall day for it. A bit chilly. Okay.. very chilly. But we’re all hardy Canadian girls. So we managed.
I think I told you a while ago that one of my book clubs decided to dedicate this season of reading to Black Lives Matter. We met a month ago to discuss how we would do that, and to decide on our book choices. I’ll give you the full list at the end of the post. On Saturday, at our fireside gathering, we talked about two books. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad.
Let me explain a little about how our book club works. We have one meeting a year where we roll out all our choices and decide which books we will read. Each member brings two or three book suggestions. The group chooses which of each member’s options will be read, and then that member hosts the meeting the month their book is discussed. Everybody hosts, and everybody knows that at least one book that season will be their suggestion. The host member also decides the venue for their meeting; sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes at their house, quite often we order take-out with everyone chipping in on the cost. The host also leads the discussion. I prefer an organic conversation to the posing of questions model. But that’s just me, probably the result of thirty years of teaching English. I can’t be bothered to dream up anymore darned questions.
At our organizational meeting in August, one of the books we chose was the non-fiction Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. And since the book is described as a sort of 4-week course we thought we’d break it up and use portions of the book as a “companion” to the fiction we would be reading. As Sue, our organizer-in-chief said, the lessons learned in the non-fiction can be used as jumping off points when discussing the other books.” So on Saturday we talked about the first portion of Saad’s book. All about recognizing and examining our own white privilege and the various guises it takes.
I will say, though, that much of our discussion centered around Brit Bennett’s wonderful novel The Vanishing Half. We all loved this book. Many giving it a 10/10 rating which is unusual for us. We can be tough sometimes. I’m thinking of the award-winning book The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which we trashed. Okay, maybe we didn’t trash it exactly, but it would have won no prizes if we’d been judges. Ha. You can read my post about that book here, if you’re interested.
The Vanishing Half is, as Parul Sehgal says in his New York Times review, part of a long tradition of American books about “passing.” About people of colour passing in white society as white. As Sehgal also says, “The story of racial passing is a uniquely and intensely American” story. With a history stretching back to Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, and to Nella Larsen’s 1929 “masterpiece” Passing. I have long been familiar with Langston Hughes and taught both his short stories and his poetry to my students. But I’d never heard of Nella Larsen. I’ve now added her work to my to-read list.
Brit Bennett’s book deals with twin sisters who grow up in a blacks-only town of Mallard in Louisiana in the forties and fifties. A town comprised of light-skinned blacks, originally settled by the half-black descendent of a former slave-owner. The girls are beautiful, smart, and very light-skinned. But, as Sahgal says, their complexions cannot protect them as long as they identify as black. A fact both girls know very well having witnessed the lynching of their pale-skinned father at the hands of white men.
At sixteen the girls run away. It is 1954. One twin, Stella, decides to “pass over”, marries a white man, becomes the mother of a blonde daughter, and lives a life of privilege in the suburbs of Los Angeles. There wealth insulates them from the race turmoil of the sixties. That is until an upwardly mobile black family moves in. Then the gloves come off. Desiree, the other twin, ends up in Washington, working for the FBI as a finger print expert. Against the backdrop of Martin Luther King’s movement, and his assassination, she marries a black lawyer, becomes the mother of a black child, and eventually runs back to Mallard to escape her abusive husband.
Bennett’s story moves back and forth in time, using multiple narrators. Beautiful, smart, and cautious Stella who, surprisingly, is the twin who passes over. And rebellious, gutsy Desiree, the twin who escapes her abusive marriage and brings her dark-skinned child back to a town which accepts her, but never her daughter. The daughters of the twins, who are so very different, and who have lived such very different lives, are also narrators. Both are searching for belonging and, in a way, for their own identity.
As Sehgal says in his review, Bennet is masterful in her exploration of the “complicated desire” to pass, and its “alienating costs.” For what are the choices? Living a lie, abandoning your life and identity for white privilege, accepting a kind of “orphanhood,” in constant fear that your lie will be discovered. Or continuing to live with the racism that the characters in this book experience, as indeed people of colour experience every day.
I don’t want to go on. There are so very many things I could say about this book, but I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it… yet. I know that my superficial summary sounds a bit glib. But this book is anything but glib. Just know that the conflict in the novel, both internal and external, is more subtle and thus more devastating than I have described. The casual, daily racism more disturbing for being casual and daily. The horrific killing of the twins’ father, which the reader only catches glimpses of, plays a central role in both their lives. And the characters, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, are much more complex.
Reading at least part of Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy didn’t really affect how I experienced Bennett’s novel as I was reading it. I was too caught up in the story as I read. But it certainly has affected how I am reflecting on the novel now.
I think the gift of reading both books together is our growing awareness of the daily battle of being black in today’s society. And the growing awareness that, while that daily battle continues, we have lived our lives mostly unaware of the privilege that our white skin affords us. What was it that Penelope Lively said about reading? That books “take you out of yourself and put you down somewhere else from whence you never entirely return.” Books stay in your head. And that is a good thing.
This morning as I sat at my desk, drinking my tea and puzzling over how to begin to write about Brit Bennett’s book, I heard a wonderful interview on CBC radio’s The Current. The host Matt Galloway was interviewing Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi about her latest book Transcendent Kingdom. Galloway asked Gyasi how it felt to be a black writer in today’s political climate. She responded that she thinks that “literature can change people’s lives.” And that while non-fiction can teach us much, can tell readers how to be anti-racist, fiction by black writers about black protagonists can drop readers right into the midst of a racist environment. And help them to better understand “the lived experience” of being on the receiving end of systemic racism.
I think that if we as a book club know more about systemic racism, and understand a little more about that “lived experience” by the time we’ve finished our reading list our time will have been well spent.
What a lovely day we had on the lake at Pam’s cottage on Saturday. Wrapped up well against the chill. Swathed in smoke at times when the fire smoldered. Surrounded by trees and birdsong. And by good friends. Intelligent, questioning, supportive, open-minded women whom I am very proud to know.
Now it’s your turn my bookish friends. Have you read either of the books my book club discussed round the campfire? Want to wade into the discussion?
And the rest of the books we’ll be reading this season: How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi. The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Not all the books on our list center around the BLM movement. We’re also reading Crow Winter by Canadian Algonquin Anishinaabe writer Karen McBride. And as a change of pace, The Children Act by Ian McEwan and The Power by Naomi Alderman.
P.S. A word about affiliate links. The links within the text of this post are to Bookshop.org, which funnels a percentage of its profits to independent bookstores across the States. But since they do not ship outside of the U.S. I have included the Amazon links to all my recommended titles above. As usual, if you make a purchase after clicking any of my links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you.
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