The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

“So I just think about all the children who have been separated from their parents, and there’s a lot of us, past and present, and some under more traumatic circumstances than other – like those who are in internment camps right now – and I just imagine us as an army of mutants. We’ve been touched by this monster, and our brains are forever changed, and we all have trees without branches in there, and what will happen to us? Who will we become? Who will take care of us?”

The Undocumented Americans is a tremendous book, maybe the most important book of the year. The best part about the book is hat it’s not for white liberals like me, but for other members of her community.

Cornejo Villavicencio created a great, impactful blend of memoir and reporting, productively angry in a way that reminded me of Audre Lorde. This combination enables her to write so clearly about the systematic trauma and PTSD of the undocumented experience, the impact it has on kids and adults, on families. She makes it so obvious that the problem is so much bigger than Trump, more systemic. These issues depicted in this book will not magically disappear when Biden and Harris are elected, but their victory might set the country’s car back on its wheels, and writers and activists like Cornejo Villavicencio might be able to then influence the administration, and the US might inch forward instead of racing further back.

If you’re still reading this and are a US citizen, I sincerely hope you already cast your ballot. If not, what are you waiting for? It’s almost too late.

1000 Serpentinen Angst

I highly recommend the debut novel by Olivia Wenzel.

“Etwas, das damit einhergeht, eine neue, gesunde Angst in dein Leben zu lassen – eine Angst, tief, wärmer und zerreißender als jede Angst um dich selbst, dein Leben, deine identitären Beffindlichkeiten es je sein könnten: eine Angst, gebunden an eine Liebe, so stark wie alles, was du bisher kanntest, mal 1000.”

“Something that goes hand in hand with a new, healthy fear in your life – a fear that is deep, warmer and more tearing than any fear of yourself, your life, your identity sensitivities could ever be: a fear bound to a love, as strong as anything you knew before, times 1000.”

1000 Serpentinen Angst is the great first novel by Olivia Wenzel. While browsing a bookshop recently, a friend recommended the book to me, especially referring to the book’s treatment of racism experiences of a Black person in Germany. And the novel is about that – in part. It’s also about (Black) life, (Black) joy, (Black) insecurities and (Black) fear in Germany. I was most impressed by the passages on the main character’s struggle with anxiety and the impact the disorder had on her normal life, her friendships and love. I recognized some of it, but the experience of being a Black queer woman in Germany adds extra layers of fear and complexity to the illness. 

The story is told through constant dialogues between the main protagonist and a constantly shifting counterpart. The narrative form is fantastic, slightly experimental and really successful in transporting these complexities, more so than an omniscient narrator or inner monologues could. This narration of the protagonists life and her complex relationships, particularly to her loving yet racist grandmother and her ill and mostly absent mother, creates a tremendous pull. Fantastic.

The Nickel Boys

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”

Colson Whitehead’s book after Underground Railroad tells the story of a reform school, the Black boys in the school, the devastating impact of the school and the system that enables it.

This novel has similar strengths (based on a true story, the concept, the research and historical truth behind the concept, the heft of the prose in the best parts) and weaknesses (underdeveloped secondary characters, the sometimes less inspired prose in transitional plot phases) as Underground Railroad. It’s still a great book that is important and deserving of its success and accolades.

But it also made me realize how the important, successful, critically acclaimed, powerful ™ books by and about Black people too often focus on (historical) hurt and pain. I could use some recommendations for important, successful, powerful ™ books about  Black joy. Not because books like Nickel Boys or Underground Railroad make white people like me uncomfortable – that’s the best part about Whitehead’s work – but because stories of joy and success need to be celebrated and supported, too. Especially in these times.

Wole Soyinka in Conversation With Henry Louis Gates

The New York Review of Books published a long, wide-ranging interview of Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate in Literature, by Henry Louis Gates. The conversation touches on Trump and why Soyinka cut up his green card, the African diaspora, desegregating motel swimming pools, Obama and burdening a leader with a Peace Prize, federalism in Nigeria, classism in South Africa, women’s rights and fundamentalism, and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I can only recommend reading it in full:

There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’

Image: Frankie Fouganthin (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnamese American Literature Recommendations

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, compiled a reading list of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American authors for Lithub. I read lê thi diem thúy’s coming-of-age novel The Gangster We Are Looking For in college and can recommend it. Closing the list is Ocean Vuong’s 2016 poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I can only agree with Viet Thanh Nguyen:

“Ocean Vuong is the Walt Whitman of Vietnamese American literature. Lyrical, expansive, sexual, provocative, he sings of the Vietnamese body and of Vietnamese history.” 

I’m keeping my eyes open for the other picks on the list.

 Additionally, Viet Thanh Nguyen recently talked to Seth Meyers about the difference between immigrants and refugees, and what we can learn from the Vietnamese-American refugee experience in these troubled times.

Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly the art of the novel which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differs from his own.

Milan Kudera, quoted in this JSTOR Daily article on literature as resistance. There is a lot to this argument, and it is also a reason why diverse literature is so important:  The more stories of e.g., trans people,are told in literature, the more the public can imagine this group as a part of society with individual, civil rights.

In literary fiction, male writers who use lightness and humor, who spin wildly in the space between one sentence and the next, who push against what’s expected, are described as “wry” or “satirical” or just plain “funny.” Women are bestowed a tiny, glittering bless-her-heart tiara of “whimsy.” Reflexive condescension absolves us from serious engagement. Miranda July is a woman, and a very serious writer who is also very funny. She’s challenging. Feed “whimsy” to the birds.

Lauren Groff makes an excellent point about “whimsy” in her review of ‘The First Bad Man,’ by Miranda July on NYTimes.com.