A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Literature as Companionship

Literature as Companionship

by Margarida Cadima

 

In his semi-autobiographical novel Satori in Paris, Jack Kerouac writes about “…the tale that’s told for no other reason but companionship, which is another (and my favorite) definition of literature…”. I quote Kerouac because throughout my life, literature has had a panoply of qualities, among which companionship.

Due to my father’s job, I moved around quite a lot growing up. I’m Portuguese, but I was born in Rome, and have lived in Lisbon, Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Paris and London. Being an only child, I didn’t have a sibling with whom to share this nomadic experience, so I turned to books as companions. Literature was my travel companion.

In 1999, when I moved to Nairobi, Kenya with my parents, I had a children’s version of The Three Musketeers with me. I used to read and re-read it, and through D’Artagnan’s adventures, I could better cope with my own adventure, of adapting to a new culture, a new school and a new language, English. I remember fondly the lunch hours spent in the library reading children’s books and magazines (I was a huge fan of American Girl magazine!), at first trying to read and understand the words on the page, then eventually being able to string together the words and comprehend the story I was reading. Literature was my language companion.

As I grew older, literature continued to accompany me and helping me better understand the world I lived in. In high school, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, and there you have sprawled on the pages of this work human nature. It is all the more impressive when you think that this book was written some 500 years ago, and how pertinent it remains to our present day. Literature is my companion in understanding human nature.

I will never forget the day when I decided I wanted to devote my life to the study of literature. It was 10th grade English and we had to read The Great Gatsby. Never had I read a book that, to put it simply, contained all of life. The decadence, the idealism, the unrequited love: it was all there! To everyone who has read and loved The Great Gatsby, you know what I’m talking about. At that moment, I knew then I wanted to read and learn about and study more literary works. I want to spend my life delighting and discovering everything literature has to offer. As Italo Calvino said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I wanted to engage in this dialogue. I wanted to join this never-ending conversation. It was then I decided. Literature is my companion, for life.

I graduated high school in June 2009, less than a year after the global financial crisis exploded. In the news, all we heard was that people were being laid off. There were no jobs. Nobody was being hired. So studying literature did not seem like an obvious choice. Perhaps this generalized hopelessness made it all the more clear that you have to study what you love. It may be cliché, but you have to follow your passion. To this effect, I’m concluding with a quote by  literary critic M.H. Abrams, who graduated high school during the Great Depression and justified his choice of studying literature as follows: “There weren’t jobs in any other profession,” he explains, “so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.”

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To connect with Margarida, check out her Instagram.

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Bookish Links

1. On the Philosophical Implications of Shelving Books

For anyone who has struggled with the question of where on the shelf a book truly belongs.

2. 100 Biographies and Memoirs of Remarkable Women

From Helen Keller and Anne Frank to Tina Fey and Malala Yousafzai — a fascinating list of books by and about women.

3. Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist – 2017

For anyone interested in new and acclaimed translated fiction. The list includes books translated from Icelandic, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Macedonian, Wolof, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian, and Japanese.

4. On the Accidental Origins of Beloved Books

Or why I write more while I recover from ankle surgery.

5. Celebrate Poetry Month: 28 Breathtaking Poetry Books to Read Now

For anyone interested in reading more modern and contemporary poetry. Each listing includes a sample of the poetry, so you can get a feel for the poet’s style.

Bookish Links

And now for your weekly dose of bookish links from around the web:

 

1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Can people please stop telling me feminism is hot?”

A fantastic profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favorite authors. She’s written books like Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sunand she’s known for TED Talks like The Danger of a Single Story and We Should All be Feminists. This profile discusses her upcoming new book.

 

2. Norse Mythology: Stories from the top of the world

The book to read alongside Neil Gaiman’s newest.

 

3. The Sharp Horn of Africa: Best Books on Somalia

If “pirates” is the only word that comes to mind when you think of Somalia, here are some books to better understand the country as a whole.

 

4. Jhumpa Lahiri: On the compulsion to translate Domenico Starnone

I’m always intrigued by authors who write in multiple languages. Jhumpa Lahiri’s voyage has intrigued me — her very first book (written in English) won the Pulitzer Prize, but after writing several more acclaimed books in English, she decided to publish a memoir in Italian. Now she’s started translating Italian works into English. Her thoughts on translation in this essay are compelling.

 

5. Picture Book Biographies of Nobel Peace Prize Winners

I don’t know about you, but I think picture book biographies have gotten much better in the last 5-10 years. This list features picture book biographies of famous Nobel Peace Prize recipients, from Theodore Roosevelt to Desmond Tutu.

 

 

Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing (2).jpgThere are some powerful books out there about slavery and civil rights in America, and there are some incredible works of African post-colonial literature, but this book provided something new –- a juxtaposition between the two.

The story begins with two sisters in West Africa, one of whom is sold into slavery while the other stays on the Gold Coast. But the book is not primarily about these two women -– it’s even more about their descendants. In a series of chapters that read a bit like short stories, we hear the stories of these two women’s descendants, generation by generation, switching back and forth between the two sides of the family. The many threads of stories create a tapestry of history, spanning two continents and nearly three centuries.

The sweep of history seemed at times like its own character, moving forward and affecting everyone in its path. Previous books I’d read about the history of slavery had only focused on one or the other side of the Atlantic. But this juxtaposition of the history of West Africa with the history of enslaved West Africans in the United States provided new and fascinating perspective. This book juxtaposes the conflict between the Asante, the Fante, and the British in West Africa (and its effect on the slave trade) with the ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act on free black families in the American north. It juxtaposes the changing relationships between people groups in Africa as the white missionaries moved in with the way black identity as an African-American contrasts with black identity as a Ghanaian. It juxtaposes the growth of independence movements in West Africa with the heroin epidemic in Harlem. This book interacts with the sweep of history on both sides of the Atlantic in a complex and compelling way, and in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character development for the scope of historical overview.

The characterization in this book is exquisite. We only have the space of a short story to get to know each character, and the chronology switches back and forth between the two sides of the family, so the narrative could have easily ended up jumbled and confusing. For me, it was the characterization that prevented this and held the book together. Each character seemed so real and alive. There was true depth and roundness to the characters as well. With such brief snapshots into each moment in history, and such an ambitious scope to the book, it would have been easy for the book to compress each character’s life into the-black-experience-during-such-and-such-a-time-period. But this wasn’t the case at all. Certainly, the black experience over the course of history was a main theme, but characters also interacted with family conflict, work challenges, friendships, marriages, the conflict between desire and duty, mental health difficulties, societal challenges, and many other aspects of life. Their lives came across as vivid and multi-faceted.

I’m always particularly curious about the portrayal of characters with scars and physical disabilities in books, and so I found the chapter about a man with a large burn on his face to be particularly intriguing. The interaction with his scarring carried on into his daughter’s story, and the following description of her response to his scars was very moving to me:

“Whenever her father or grandmother asked her about pain, Marjorie would say she had never known it. As a young child, someone had told her that the scars her father wore on his face and grandmother on her hands and feet were born of great pain. And because Marjorie had no scars that resembled those, she could never bring herself to complain of pain. Once, when she was just a little girl, she had watched a ringworm on her knee grow and grow and grow. She’d hidden it from her parents for nearly two weeks, until the worm overtook the curve where thigh met calf, making it difficult for her to bend. When she’d finally shown her parents, her mother had vomited, and her father had snatched her in his arms and rushed her to the emergency room. The orderly who came to call them back had been startled, not by the worm, but by her father’s scar. She’d asked if he was the one who needed help.” 

As you can see from this section, the writing in this book is vivid and compelling. I was struck with how a lifetime of emotions about the character’s own response to her father’s scars and the responses of strangers can be wrapped up and tangled into a single powerful scene. Throughout the book, the author uses striking anecdotes like this one to express a chaotic variety of emotions. The immediacy and compactness of the writing carries throughout the book.

All in all, I found this to be a vivid and intriguing book. While there were times when it the content was graphic and difficult, the characters were so beautifully drawn that it kept me engaged and invested in finding out what would happen. The interaction between the history of West Africa and the history of enslaved Africans in the US was a fascinating juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The writing was arresting and vivid, and I look forward to seeing what Yaa Gyasi writes next.

Bookish Links

And now, some bookish links for the week:

1. Exceptional Translated Fiction

A list of literature translated from other languages. I’m excited to read a number of titles on this list, and it could be a good resource for anyone participating in the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 Reading Challenge.

2. The Stranger’s Tongue

Speaking of literature in translation, this is a wonderful essay on the process of translation, the empathy it can engender, and the fascination that comes with what is untranslatable.

3. How Rereading Brings Comfort

I resonated with this essay on the comfort of re-reading books. Since my recent ankle surgery, I’ve re-read Robin McKinley’s Beauty, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Sometimes you just need a date with an old favorite.

4. Poems of Anxiety and Uncertainty

This is a beautifully curated collection of poems that explore the theme of anxiety and uncertainty. In our current unsettled political climate, we could probably all do with some more poetry in our lives.

5. Dear Fellow Traveler

A reflective essay, meditating on an unusual guest book.

Newbery Award Winners 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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Even before the announcement about this year’s Newbery winners, I’d already fallen in love with this amazing book. I highlighted it in my posts on the  10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 and the Best Books of 2016. It’s a delightful fantasy book, both funny and compelling, about a cranky and forgetful witch, a young girl who drinks moonlight, a village being forced to sacrifice its children, and a madwoman in a prison cell who can make paper cranes fly.

Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

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This poignant (though sometimes brutal and harrowing) book centers on a young girl in rural Pennsylvania, the cruel and conniving bully who moves to town, and a reclusive WWI veteran. It’s a story of both cruelty and compassion, and of the bravery it takes to stand up for someone who can’t stand up for himself.

The Inquisitor’s Tale – by Adam Gidwitz

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This quirky and thought-provoking tale is set in medieval Europe. It includes an interesting cast of characters: a young girl whose character is loosely based on Joan of Arc, an impossibly strong former oblate with Saracen heritage, and a Jewish boy who recently escaped an ethnically motivated attack on his village. Religion is a main theme of this book, yet the tone remains respectful and subtle in its interaction with many religions. In among the fun antics and exciting story line, a number of thought-provoking questions are raised, and I think it would be a fascinating book to read aloud and discuss.

The book is thoroughly researched, and that research comes through most clearly in the book’s style and tone. The quirky and unexpected aesthetic of the book is often a result of actual medieval tales woven into the story line, and I was often reminded of the unusual tone that comes through in works like The Lais of Marie de France or The Canterbury Tales. The illustrations add a great deal to this aesthetic as well, imitating the curious marginalia of medieval scholars.

Freedom Over Me – by Ashley Bryan

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In this compelling picture book, we hear initially from a white woman named Mrs. Fairchilds as she prepares to auction off her late husband’s estate, and then from each of the eleven enslaved people who are considered part of that estate. Their words come in the form of a series of narrative poems, sharing with us their sorrows, hopes, and dreams.

While the historic documentation of this slave sale (which is included in the book) gives only the name and price for each person sold, the poems imagine their true interior selves, full of memories of the past, dreams for the future, and a hope for freedom. I was particularly struck by the sections in which people shared their memories from their lives in Africa, and the meanings behind their African names. The contrast between the piece of paper that reduces these people’s lives to a monetary price and the poems that express their humanity and dignity is quite powerful and striking.

Caldecott Award Winners 2017

Each year, the Caldecott Award honors the year’s distinguished American picture books. I’m always excited to see which books are chosen, and it’s become a tradition to read the year’s books aloud with my son. He enjoys making it into his own competition, and each of us decides on our favorites from the year’s Caldecott winners.

Radiant Child – by Javaka Steptoe

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This picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat focuses on the artist’s childhood: the encouragement and inspiration he gained from his mother, the expressiveness and non-conformity of his art (even as a child), the way that a childhood car accident prompted an interest in human anatomy that continued throughout his later work. The theme of art being expressive and “outside-the-lines” pervades the book, and the messages about what constitutes art could prove a helpful preparation for children getting ready to visit an art museum or exhibition.

Leave Me Alone! – by Vera Brosgol

(my favorite)

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This hilariously funny book follows an exasperated old woman who needs some peace and quiet to finish her knitting. She moves from place to place, searching for a quiet place to knit and constantly being interrupted by a series of increasingly unexpected visitors. The story explores both the need for a break from people and the way that searched-for aloneness can become lonely after a while. As an introvert and a knitter myself, I found this book to be particularly funny, and it was my personal favorite from among this year’s Caldecott winners.

Freedom in Congo Square – by Carole Boston Weatherford

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With vibrant illustrations and a strong rhyming text, this book explores daily life for enslaved people in New Orleans. Congo Square  was the only place in New Orleans where enslaved people were allowed to congregate during their time off, and it became an important place of community, music, and dance. This book shows both the horrors and drudgery of daily activities under slavery, as well as the hope and anticipation of the weekly gatherings in Congo Square. The text was very accessible for my 6-year-old, and the poetry was powerful in its subtlety.

Du Iz Tak? – by Carson Ellis

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This quirky tale about insects building a tree fort had my son laughing out loud. It’s written in a made-up language, so kids have to infer from context what the words mean. As a French teacher, this made me happy in a special teacherly place in my heart. Getting kids to let go of having to know what every single word means and just understand the gist of something in a foreign language is an important part of being able to absorb the new language. Rounded out with charming illustrations, this book was most enjoyable.

They All Saw the Cat – by Brendan Wenzel

(my son’s favorite)

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This charming book is a fascinating exploration of perspective and point of view. It shows a cat from the perspective of lots of different people and animals that it interacts with — from the child’s perspective, the cat is a loving big-eyed kitty; from the mouse’s perspective, it’s a horrifying monster. The creative illustrations truly make this book, and it’s not at all heavy-handed in its approach. My 6-year-old son loved the constantly changing perspectives on this cat, and this book was his favorite among this year’s Caldecotts.