The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Make You Feel

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.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

5941033I’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.

But Nepal was a weird time for me. I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu, unsure about how to face the legacy of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent that I’d just traveled through, confused about how to deal with my economic privilege in the midst of a lot of poverty, and had been on the road for almost six months.

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.

Let the Great World Spin reminds me of how intimately we are connected, how deeply grief and loss can affect us, and how love and empathy can draw us through the even darkest of times. Continue reading “The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Make You Feel”

The Story I Can’t Tell

There is a story I want to tell, but no matter how many times I try, I can’t get it right.

 

There is a writer. They go to Bhaktapur, Nepal. It’s October. A young girl approaches them as they enter the city. Says “hello.” Starts chatting. Asks if she can show the writer around to practice her English.

The writer is a white American. The young girl—a teenager, really, though she looks like she could be in middle school—is Newari, an ethnic minority in Nepal.

Let’s call the girl Matina. Let’s say she shows the writer around. There are buildings that are hundreds of years old. There are intricate wood carvings on the doors, in the eaves, above the windows, making windows themselves. This is what people come to Bhaktapur to see.

bhaktapur-4

Let’s say the writer takes her to a café, but mostly because the writer is hungry and hasn’t had coffee. Let’s say they watch Nepali music videos on the writer’s cell phone. Let’s say Matina loves Nepali singers, but her favorite band is One Direction.

What if even in that moment, the writer realizes the complexity of what’s happening? Wonders when Matina might make an ask. Wonders if her parents put her up to snagging tourists off the streets and showing them around, telling them things like how much she likes chemistry. Wonders about the economics that would lead a family to do a thing like that. Wonders if Matina will be able to finish school. Wonders how many other foreigners have taken her to this café.

Still, the writer goes along. Eventually, Matina invites them to her home. The writer meets Matina’s parents. Matina shows the writer her homework—pages and pages, reciting chemistry facts and asking if she got the answers right on her English test. Her mom asks the writer to buy the family groceries.

The writer has been ripped off before with a similar ask—once in Delhi and once in Kathmandu—but they buy the groceries anyway—rice, oil, milk. Matina’s mom invites them back to the house to drink Fanta, their one splurge. Matina cleans off a metal cup with cloudy water from an old 7Up bottle and pours the soda in.

Matina calls the writer “sister” and “friend.” The writer thinks it might all be an act but is tempted to think that Matina might be lonely, too. Maybe in that way, they’re the same. When asked about her best friend, Matina says she had one before, but not now.

It is tempting for the writer to think in terms of these well-worn narratives. Because it easy, and there are clean lines to follow. Lines that could make the writer feel more comfortable.

But they’re not comfortable. And when Matina takes them back to the bus stop, and tells the writer to come back to visit, and asks them to send her post cards, and makes sure they get on the right bus to Kathmandu, the writer can’t help but thinking. And thinking. And thinking.

 

Did I do the right thing? Did I just make things worse? Will she become a tour guide, nurse, or singer like she dreams? What if my life had been like this? Where would I be? Why do I get to go back to an air-conditioned hotel with wifi when her home has dirt floors and no running water? Why do I keep talking to strangers? How did her house still stand in the earthquake? Did she lose anyone she knew? How do I tell this story? Can I? Continue reading “The Story I Can’t Tell”

An Avalanche of Love: Thoughts on an Impending Inauguration

As Trump’s inauguration looms ahead of us, I feel a shadow cast over my friends’ Facebook walls and a palpable fear in our conversations.

One friend is trans and fears they won’t be able to afford (or be offered) trans-related healthcare with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Another is a freelancer who said the ACA allowed her to be insured for the first time since she was a teenager (she’s in her 30s now). She’s worried her asthma will once again disqualify her from coverage, as it was considered a “pre-existing condition” before Obamacare.

Another friend suffers from depression that is compounded by the uncertainty of life as an LGBTQ person in Trump’s America–and the potential discrimination they might encounter.

Still another works with LGBTQ youth in the South and said she’s received more hateful comments on her organization’s Facebook page in the last few months than she has in years.

“Why would grown men pick on kids?” she asked.

Yet, that is the standard that Trump is bringing to his new vision of the United States. Our next president, who uses Twitter to bully teenagers and pick on everyday citizens. Continue reading “An Avalanche of Love: Thoughts on an Impending Inauguration”