Top 10 Books of 2020: Number 1

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

This book is perfection, and it should be required reading. I’d say that’s all you need to know, but it would make for one very short post.

If you’ve somehow managed to miss out on this book, it’s non-fiction. Though the book is largely about race, it also covers class and gender – the other ways we tend to label people without knowing them. The book goes through the ways that having a caste system affects, permeates and damages societies, looking at India, America and nazi Germany.

What makes this book a phenomenal read is the stories it contains. It’s one thing to read facts about lynching, but it’s another to read about a boy being shoved off a cliff into a river to drown while his father was held and forced to watch because the boy sent a valentine to a white classmate. Or that Germany actually took notes on how America managed to oppress citizens so well without public uprising and used these tactics in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Nothing I write can do this book justice. It’s a heavy read, for sure, but a worthy one. The fact is, until we take a hard look at the history of our country and how we’ve treated each other, until we really grapple with how that affects us, and until we actively take steps to do better, we won’t have any lasting change. We can’t walk towards the light unless we admit that we’re in the darkness. We can do better, but will we?

You will be challenged, you will be brokenhearted, and you will be angry. But let it change the way you see the world, and the systemic problems that keep people oppressed. But first read the book, and then pass it on.

Throwback: Creative Community, Not Bullying

I don’t know what prompted this post originally. Clearly something got me all fired up.

To everyone who is remotely creative, or knows anyone who is creative:

We have enough problems with people who don’t understand the time and effort we spend on our craft. The people who expect that we should design them a free website because we’re good at it, or photograph their kids for free. We’ve all been there at some point.

We need to stop demoralizing each other. We’re not in competition, we’re a community. None of us create exactly the same thing, the same way, which is why there really is room for all of us. And even if there isn’t enough commercial success for all of us – that’s not the point. We create because we have to, because it’s an essential part of our being, not because of the money. (Though to make a living at what we love is a dream, obviously.)

To be creative is an incredibly difficult thing, because it takes years of practice on something that often feels so intimate. Who doesn’t put a little piece of themselves into what they create?

There are so many ridiculous, subjective barriers, that we never know when we’re good enough. We see authors who can barely string together a coherent plot reach the best seller list and spawn successful movie franchises, while we agonize over the details of a character arc. A five year old gains publicity for slinging paint at a canvas, but we sell character sketches to make ends meet.

We need to be in this together. We need to encourage each other, no matter what medium, no matter what point in our journeys we’re at. We need to remind each other to do what we love, because we love it.

And we should never, ever, invalidate another person’s craft.

It doesn’t matter if you know better, or if they’re better and you know it. If they got to the same level of skill in your craft in a tenth of the time, or if they’re thirty years older and still mastering the basics, it doesn’t matter. If you spend eight hours a day and they only spend twenty minutes – it doesn’t matter. Whether you like their work or they like yours…

Don’t tell someone that they aren’t, or can’t be, what they are.

You’re an artist even if you’ve never had an exhibition.

You’re an artist even if you only have a deviantart account.

You’re a musician even if bar chords hurt your hands.

You’re an artist if you draw fan art.

You’re a writer even if you’ve self-published.

You’re a writer even if you’ve not published anything yet.

Top 10 Books of 2020: Number 2

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, published in 2016. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was good, but having read it right on the heels of Homegoing, I much, much preferred the first. This book is incredibly engrossing, and I found myself wanting to read just one more chapter while also wanting to save and savor it.

The book follows two daughters of one woman – they don’t know each other, and they never will. One daughter is captured and taken to America as a slave. The other marries a British official and stays in Africa. Each chapter that follows is a story from one of their descendants, ending many generations later. Because of this structure, Homegoing almost works like a series of short stories with a theme, rather than a cohesive novel. Nevertheless, I loved this book. Part of it is definitely because I find myself wondering what happened to characters after the novel ends – and this book repeatedly scratches that itch for me. Sometimes, the lives of the characters improve and their descendants are better off, but often, they’re worse off or face consequences their ancestors never intended.

That’s another thing I loved about this book – sure, it’s sweet and romantic when two characters abandon their settled lives to start fresh where no one knows them. But when the story picks up with their daughter, we find that while the couple was happy, their circumstances have been dire for many years – so much so that no one wants to marry the daughter because they believe she’s cursed. Consequences abound when a story has to carry over multiple generations. But the stories are both heartbreaking and satisfying.

I’ll be honest, I don’t tend to gravitate towards novels about African culture. I have relatively little understanding of it, and I probably wouldn’t have picked this on my own if it weren’t for Barnes and Noble choosing Transcendent Kingdom as one of their book club picks. But I am so glad that I read this book. It was so well done, from start to finish.

Read Homegoing. You won’t regret it.