Reader’s Corner: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’

When Ta-Nehisi Coates published his third book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays on black American history and current affairs late last year, the country was still just getting used to its new presidential reality. Or not.

My review is at RainTaxi Review of Books:

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist’s heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a “national dialogue” on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn’t an easy one…

Writer’s Desk: Be Ready to Fail

Back in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, one of the great American memoirs of the past few decades. In 2015 came Between the World and Me, a tender but hard-edged book-length essay on everything his son needed to know about growing up black in America.

As one of nation’s top public intellectuals, and one whose prose style is so frequently lauded, it’s difficult to think of Coates now in the same way that most writers think of themselves: frustrated, frightened, failing. From Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power:

[Writers] must learn to abandon appeal and expectation. Failure is the norm for writers—firings and layoffs, rejected pitches, manuscripts tossed into the wastebins, bad reviews, uninterested editors, your own woeful first drafts, they all form a chorus telling you to quit with whatever dignity you still have intact.

It’s a bracing reminder of the everyday struggle. But then Coates reminds us how to muscle past it:

If you are going to write, you must learn to work in defiance of this chorus, in defiance of the unanswered pitches, of the books that find no audience, and most of all, in defiance of the terror radiating from the blank white page.

Remember that failure is not just an option, but a likelihood. If you can’t acknowledge that fact, then maybe writing is not for you. If, however, you are the person who can put their shoulder to that always-closed door and keep pushing, then maybe you have what it takes.

Reader’s Corner: Vote Now

oscar-waoInstead of just announcing what the new all-city book club selection is going to be, New York took it to the people with OneBookNY. They chose five possible books and are asking people to vote on what they think everyone should read.

The five books are:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Couple interesting choices here. Coates’s book is nonfiction, departing from the usual novelistic mold, while Beatty’s (amazing) novel is set quite definitively in Los Angeles. Seems like either Diaz or Smith’s (also amazing) novels are the right choice here, but who’s to say?

Voting closes February 28.

Reader’s Corner: What the Bigots Had to Read

NightWieselA few months ago, some teenagers spraypainted swastikas and various other offensive things onto a historic black schoolhouse in Virginia. When they were sentenced, the judge said they were going to have to read a book each month for the next 12 months and write a report on each one.

Here’s the list of books they could choose from:

  1. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  2. Native Son, by Richard Wright
  3. Exodus, by Leon Uris
  4. Mila 18, by Leon Uris
  5. Trinity, by Leon Uris
  6. My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
  7. The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
  8. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  9. Night, by Elie Wiesel
  10. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
  11. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
  12. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
  13. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  14. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  15. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  17. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
  18. Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks
  19. Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
  20. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  21. A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind
  22. Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas
  23. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
  24. The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  25. The Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt
  26. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  27. Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
  28. The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang
  29. Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  30. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
  31. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
  32. Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
  33. Too Late the Phalarope, by Alan Paton
  34. A Dry White Season, by André Brink
  35. Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides

handmaidstale1Certainly several of these books would be considered standard assignments in any basic college course that dealt with multicultural or tolerance issues (Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alan Paton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Harper Lee).

But others selections are more interesting, such as Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (a North Korean defector struggles to adapt to life outside the dictatorship) or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian fiction about a theocratic America in which women are merely vessels for reproduction). It sounds like the judge is looking at a broader idea of educating here that involves not just tolerance but empathy–which is, after all, one of the greatest lessons that fiction can provide.

Weekend Reading: December 23, 2016

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Weekend Reading: September 23, 2016

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Weekend Reading: December 4, 2015

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