“Abba, Amma, Adonai,” Peter and I recited, the Lord’s Prayer flowing from our lips as we read from the Koora Retreat Centre prayer books.
We were sitting in Peter’s home, a train car remodeled into a one-bedroom house with large, beautiful windows that looked out into the Western Australian bush. Outside was sheer wilderness—shimmering golden-brown dirt, scrappy bushes with thick leaves, a few thin trees twisting toward the sky. Birds soared in swirls of heat above.
Peter, a retired Anglican priest with a white, bushy beard, and his wife Anna (also an Anglican priest) run the desert retreat center, which I stumbled across last February. I returned in October to spend a month with them.
I joined them in their railway carriage for morning prayer at 7:30 a.m. each day, and though Anna was out of town this particular morning, Peter and I decided to meet anyway. Somehow, our conversation had turned to gender.
“So Anna tells me you use the pronoun ‘they,'” he’d said after we’d finished our Bible readings and before we’d launched into prayers of the community. Soon we’d run the gamut from the spectrum of gender to the limits of English pronouns.
Peter admitted he struggled with “they” as a pronoun but said, “To me, you’re just Alexis.”
We closed our prayer books after finishing the Lord’s Prayer and offering blessings to one another.
“That’s you,” Peter said a few moments after we finished.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Adonai.” He paused. “Well, it’s like ‘beloved.’ But it’s not male or female like the others.”
Abba, father. Amma, mother. Adonai.
He told me about the words for God–how the names the Hebrews had for God reflected God’s characteristics. El Shaddai–God’s nurturing and sustaining nature. Yahweh–God’s unchangeable, everlasting nature. Adonai–a loving bond.
“Yes,” Peter said, as I collected his prayer book from him and stacked on the bookshelf beside my chair. “Maybe the Hebrews had it right.”
This summer has been for me a time of leaving and returning, going home and leaving homes behind. Much of my now year-plus journey has been an exploration of what “home” is–how to feel at home where you are, what it means to have multiple homes, how to process conflicting feelings about “home,” feelings of simultaneous belonging and unbelonging.
I’ve also been learning how “home” often consists so much more of the feeling I get with certain people than it does with any particular place. Yet, at the same time, I know there are distinct places that resonate with me, places where I feel in step with the world somehow, sometimes for unknown reasons. And then there are homes I’ve left behind, thinking they weren’t mine, and upon returning, I have been surprised to find that “homeness” intact, and I have been left thinking, Yes, this is my place.
My reading list over the last few months has, without intention, reflected many of these ruminations and complications. And in some ways, the ways I found these books reflect my own wandering: I picked up two of them after hearing the authors speak at the Adelaide Writers’ Week in Australia last spring. Another I’d intended to read for a long time, but this summer I found it on the shelf of an English professor friend who I was housesitting for in South Carolina. Another was left for me in the car I borrowed from a dear friend in South Carolina this summer when she moved back to South Korea. Still another, I simply stumbled across.
These are stories of returning to homes and seeing them in new lights, of being exiled from the people and places we call home, of having a home but not feeling at home in it, and stories of having your home destroyed and changed by forces beyond your control–and making due as you can. I hope these books might give you glimpses into other worlds and perhaps help you along your own journeys to and from home.
While I learned about the Tiananmen Square massacre in middle school (we read a novel set there when I was in seventh grade), I knew very little about China’s Cultural Revolution. So when I heard Madeleine Thien, who was at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, talk about how almost all music was outlawed in China during that time (except for a handful of government-approved songs), I was both horrified and intrigued, particularly as one of her characters is a composer. As a musician myself, I wondered how I would cope in a world without music, what I would do if something that enriched my life so much was taken away. I wondered how a government could manage it–that erasure of culture, of music, of art, of literature–and what vast effects such a move must’ve had on the generations that followed.
Thien’s book is an exploration of just that. Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows the journeys of its characters through love and loss during China’s Cultural Revolution and its far-reaching aftermath. From a Chinese defector who flees to Canada after the massacres near Tiananmen Square in 1989 to young composers and musicians forced to abandon music during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, readers are drawn into shifting and intersecting worlds of danger, loss, coming, and going amid the love, friendship, and family bonds that hold people together. With beautifully drawn characters and a compelling narrative that delves both into the personal and political, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of the best books I read this year, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
I’d been eyeing this book for a while, but after I saw Krys Lee speak at Adelaide Writers’ Festival in Australia and livetweeted about everything she said, I decided to track it down. Largely set in China near the North Korean border, How I Became a North Korean follows multiple characters on their journeys of exile from North Korea and their attempts to escape the regime, including Jangmi, a pregnant defector who is forced into sex work, and Yongju, a young man whose family was once in the upper echelons of North Korean society and politics. Most interesting and accessible, though, is Danny, a Bible-toting young man who is an ethnic Korean from China but grew up in California. Through a series of misadventures, Danny ends up in China without a passport and offers an outsider’s look into the world of the North Korean migrants as he navigates his own struggles with faith, sexuality, and identity.
How I Became a North Korean offers insight into the struggles of defectors from this regime, but importantly, it’s not just about how awful North Korea is. In the end, as characters make and remake themselves and their relationships with one another and the places they live, we find that North Korea isn’t the only villain and sometimes our heroes aren’t who we expect them to be.
Narrated through the lens of the youthful Esperanza, The House on Mango Street tells the story of a young Latina girl who comes of age in a house and neighborhood she only dreams of escaping. Told in a series of short chapters that act as vignettes, we get both a sense of Esperanza’s desire to leave the low-income, predominantly Latinx neighborhood in Chicago where she lives as well as the connections she forms to it. We also get a sense of the worlds that Esperanza straddles and the borders she continually crosses as she moves deftly from Spanish to English, her neighborhood to the school, the world outside to the world within.
Through her childlike narration, we get glimpses of her family’s joys and struggles, her neighbors’ day-to-day lives, and her own movement from childhood into adulthood. And “glimpses” are perhaps an appropriate word for these stories–most of them are brief, and yet taken together, they offer a full picture of the protagonist, her fears, and her dreams.
Published in the 1980s, The House on Mango Street is considered a classic and taught throughout a number of schools throughout the U.S. Yet, it’s still very relevant to today’s discussions on Latinx and Mexican-American culture, feminism(s), and intersectionality. So if you’re looking for an engaging narrator, fiction about Latinx culture, or a book on home, this one’s for you.
Originally, I was searching my library’s electronic books section for Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit’s feminist treatise that has been all the rage among my feminist friends. On the way, I found this and decided to give it a read.
The Faraway Nearby is a book of lyrical essays that traverse space, place, and time. Interweaving history, mythology, and story with her own struggles with a mother who has dementia, Solnit draws us into those moments of emotion that make human experience via her circling of the philosophical, wondering about nature, and examining her own lived existence. It’s a lovely, evocative portrayal of the complicated nature of our most intimate relationships made only more meaningful by her opening of the narrative to examine the broader world.
Honestly, this novel made me really sad, but I think it offered me an important, if fictionalized, glimpse into everyday life in Afghanistan and the twists and turns the country has taken over the previous decades.
Told from the perspectives of two Afghan women, we follow our two protagonists from childhood into young adulthood as their paths move ever-closer to convergence. The novel opens on Mariam, a young Afghan teenage girl born out of wedlock who is trying to form a relationship with her father, who is married and has wives and kids of his own, and to escape the small, impoverished home of her mother. Her attempt to escape leads her down innumerable difficult paths that continute to confine her to a life she dreams of escaping, including an abusive husband in Kabul, a city far from the small village where she grew up. Laila grows up down the street from Mariam in Kabul and receives many of the things Mariam has not–a loving family, an education, a chance at love. Yet, escalating violence during the Afghani war with the Soviets brings her world crashing around her and draws her into Mariam’s world in ways neither had ever expected.
A story of exile, of entrapment, and of making homes where there are none, A Thousand Splendid Suns ultimately is about the connections we make with one another and with various places and people we call home, and how those connections make (and break) our world.
Stay tuned for the next installation of “The Traveling Bookshelf,” featuring five more books to add to your to-read list!
What are your favorite books on leaving and returning, on home and exile? Let me know in the comments!
Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. –Rumi
I shake out the handful of journals that are stuffed into a sack in the top of my backpack. They tumble onto the bed at the Airbnb where I’m staying in Bali. I shuffle through the journals and notebooks, trying to remember which covers go with what countries.
It is April. I’ve been on the road for almost a year.
I flip through them and find entries from Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The journal closes with a single entry from my time in Yangon, Myanmar, the country I visited after Nepal, but it is only a couple pages.
I grab the journal I think comes next, sure it will hold more entries documenting my experiences there. But when I feel its fabric cover under my fingers, I remember—I bought this one in Vietnam, the country I went to after Myanmar, one sunny morning as I wandered the zigzagging streets near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
I shake my head and look at the leather- and fabric-bound covers strewn across the bedspread. This can’t be right, I think.
I drag out other notebooks—ones where I write drafts and jot down ideas. They’re not organized like my journals, which are chronological even if they are stream-of-consciousness. There must be a scrap, I think. There must be something more.
The hair clippers felt heavy in my hand as a humid December breeze blew in from the newly harvested rice paddies of Ninh Binh province. Palm branches danced over my head, throwing shadows on the 30-something Swiss woman who sat in front of me. I looked down at the back of her head, then at the clippers in my hand. Sweat gathered at my temples and in my palms.
In the seven months I’d traveled through Asia, I hadn’t found many short-haired women—and none like Caroline, who buzzed her hair as short as her partner Mario’s. And a small homestay in Ninh Giang, a sleepy Vietnamese town about two hours south of Hanoi, was the last place I expected to find three women with short hair like me—Caroline and the two owners.
I was sick in Bali last week (tummy troubles), and though I picked up some antibiotics, my Airbnb host mom (who’s pretty much like a homestay mom to me by now) also took me to the temple to pray for “no sick.” She lent me clothes to wear so I could go with her–a lacy shirt, a sarong–special clothing that women wear to go to the temple.
The day before, at the end of a nice chat, her 20-something son had asked me, “So, do I call you ‘miss,’ or…?”
“Uh, either,” I said.
“But… I mean,” he fumbled, perhaps thinking I didn’t understand him. “Are you a girl or a boy?”
After Trump was elected last fall, I put out a call to my friends on Facebook to help me create a reading list for educating and empowering myself. Specifically, I asked for recommendations of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that would help me work toward justice and equality–with a focus on racial justice, immigration, disability rights, economic justice, and/or anything regarding feminisms, collaboration/coalitions, organizing, LGBTQ stuff, etc.
What I got was better than I could’ve ever imagined. The comment thread grew and grew, with book recommendations ranging from racial justice to feminist/womanist theology to socially critical poetry.
It’s been a hard month-plus for a lot of us since Trump was inaugurated, and as my friend Joanna jokes, whenever I run into trouble, I turn to books. In my last reading list, which I posted shortly after the U.S. election, I suggested five books to read on race. This time, I’m focusing on feelings.
One of the best things stories offer us is a chance to walk around in someone else’s skin. As President Obama so rightly noted when describing the importance of reading in his life and presidency, books allow us “the ability to slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in someone else’s shoes”—and if we need nothing else at this time, it’s certainly more empathy. (The full transcript of Obama’s interview with the New York Times about books and reading is beautiful and available here.)
So here are some of the things I’ve read recently that have given me feels and made me feel more human. I hope you might be moved by them, too.
I’m gonna be honest—this is my second time reading this book, and I read it before the election results were announced. I’d filled out my absentee ballot. I’d scanned and sent it from the lovely Airbnb home I was staying at in Pokhara, Nepal. Trump wasn’t even on my radar.
I’d retreated to Pokhara for a couple weeks, to a lovely rustic property up the hill from Phewa Lake, to write and regroup. As much as I needed the quiet time, I was simultaneously struck by a feeling of aloneness (with the good and bad that goes with it) and self-defeating doubt.
I hadn’t felt invested in my fiction writing in a long time. I doubted the usefulness of stories. I didn’t know where my voice had gone, or why.
So, I turned to Let the Great World Spin, a book that I’ve counted as one of my favorites since I first read it a few years ago. So often, I’ve viewed literary fiction as a place of sadness; so infrequently have I found literary fiction that puts some hope in the bottom of the box.
Let the Great World Spin is an aching, dizzying, resonating piece that does just that—while sorting through realms of grief, longing, loneliness, and connection. Told through multiple viewpoints, McCann takes the reader deep into the lives a series of narrators who are connected by a thin thread (thicker for some than others) via the moment in 1974 when a man strung a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in New York and walked across it. Each voice layers on top of the other, giving each greater meaning, and pulling the reader across space and time, into living rooms and antique cars and subway tunnels and the tops of towers, inviting us in for coffee, inviting us to share in one another’s grief and, in the end, to land on love.