- What: Three-Fifths
- Who: John Vercher
- Pages: 240
- Genres: Contemporary fiction and crime
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
Winter 1995. Pittsburgh. A hate crime occurs and intense arguments ensue over race relations. Racist undertones permeate conversations between any two people of different races, and a young man with a mixed identity is afraid to be himself and live his truth.
June 2020. We have a global pandemic that has everyone at home and unable to avoid current events. Because of that, nobody can ignore or deny the atrocious and racially motivated death of George Floyd. It sparks protests and conversations about race and white supremacy (both explicit and implicit forms), and it ignites hate crimes and defensive attitudes from white people about racial disparity and inequality in America.
Twenty-five years is the only thing marking the difference between present day and the fictional tale told in John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths. Sadly, inequality still exists to the same degree today as it did 25 years ago, and white supremacy, hate crimes, and racist remarks aren’t just fictionalized. Vercher’s story could have happened in 1995, and we certainly know it still happens today. The only difference, as Van Jones remarks in the Netflix documentary, 13th, is that today these offenses can be filmed on phones. It makes you question if we as a society and as individuals have grown at all in 25 years. It’s hard to see how.
- What: Such a Fun Age
- Who: Kiley Reid
- Pages: 305, hard cover
- Genres: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
One of the greatest gifts that The Biblio Files has given me is the light it has shed on my own microaggressions — how my own whiteness leaves me completely ignorant sometimes. And it’s truly a gift because it forces me to see where I can grow and improve even if it’s hard to accept.
There have been many editing sessions where I cringe at something I say. I never intend disrespect, and sometimes it’s really just nerves; however, I recognize that intent and meaning are two different things. And sometimes it’s the way I say something. I have, for example, a nervous laugh that usually accompanies something uncomfortable. In a recent episode, I deleted about 10 seconds of a conversation about catcalling because I was laughing about being catcalled while leaving the gym. When this happened, I didn’t find it funny at all, and I still don’t today. So why do I laugh at something so terrible?
Because I’m human, not perfect, and far from woke. Hearing yourself after you say something is the greatest way to recognize your flaws (that whole hindsight thing), and boy, am I observing and trying to rectify mine.
Microagressions, intersectionality, being “woke” in the 21st century, and ignorance all play key roles in Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, a 2019 novel that’s getting all the rage. It could not come at a more perfect time — for me and for the entire world.
Let me start by saying diversity and literature go hand in hand.
- Diversity is the foundation to learn new perspectives from literature.
- Literature proves the value and necessity of diversity.
We are coming full circle here, people.
Diversity wasn’t really part of my upbringing, though. I grew up in a mostly white community and knew very few people who looked or lived differently than I did. I don’t even remember talking to a person of color until high school. Even then, my school was mostly white kids. On top of that, I barely knew any non-Christians or non-straight people. I definitely didn’t know anyone from the trans community.
That changed a bit when I went to college. I was definitely one of those people, though, who had one or two black friends and thought that made me an ally and not racist. I would even say that out loud. “Oh she’s my black friend.” And I shamefully remember commenting once that one of these women didn’t “act black.” I’m embarrassed now to write that and of my 20-year-old self, and I feel immense guilt.
Thank God for growth, for New York, and for literature.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a coworker about the memories books create — how it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, you still remember the exact feeling a book gave you and the exact spot you were when you read it.
It doesn’t happen with everything I pick up, but it did with Colson’s Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I barely put down this moving and creative novel the minute I picked it up, and I’ll never forget how I could barely move from the bed in my Brooklyn apartment in the few days it took to read it. I remember being so incredibly in awe of such magic, triumph and heartbreak. And in my subconscious, I think the feelings that book evoked helped inspire Big Little Literature.
Because of these strong feelings, I was a bit skeptical to read Whitehead’s latest The Nickel Boys. I mean, there’s just no way anything can compare, right? Well, his 2019 novel brings the same emotions and power, and I finished this one in a matter of hours (as I descended into Denver accompanied by some devoted speed-reading because no way was I waiting to finish it until I got to my hotel). The verdict is in, and let’s just say it gave The Underground Railroad a very good run for its money.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t fully understand white privilege until a couple of months ago. I’m ashamed of this. I knew it existed, and that it had been a part of my life as much as any other white person’s, but I didn’t really get it. It’s important to admit ignorance and more importantly to overcome it.
I was running on a hot, humid July day and listening to Armchair Expert, a fantastic podcast with Dax Shepard, when it happened. He was interviewing one of my favorite humans — and one of the most woke — Sophia Bush, the genius who gave the world Brooke Davis. As she explained that white privilege is not meant to diminish anybody’s suffering but rather to illustrate that suffering as a white person has never been the result of the color of our skin, it clicked for me.
It is so blatantly clear that white privilege exists.
And it’s this theme, along with feminism, humor, and mental health, that brings us Queenie, a 2019 novel that author Richard Roper recommended to me. This book is the epitome of intersectionality (don’t worry: I had to Google that term too) and all sorts of sociological terms rolled up into a few hundred pages, but author, Candice Carty-Williams, injects plenty of laughs into it as well. That means we should have a compelling novel on our hands. Unfortunately, I only felt connected and drawn to half of this book, leaving me confused about my feelings. Carty-Williams tackles a lot of topics and their complex relationships with one another in Queenie, and it’s certainly a book we need in 2019. But is it the novel that fully delivers on it’s worth? I’m not sure.
- What: To Kill a Mockingbird
- Who: Harper Lee
- Pages: 376, small soft cover
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1960
- The lit: of 5 flames
To Kill a Mockingbird is the first book reviewed in a new Big Little Literature series, Storied, a personal initiative to read the greatest books in American literature.
PBS’ The Great American Read had me regretting never experiencing so many magical pieces of American literature. One of those was not only so far ahead of its time but is also — and sadly — still relevant in today’s society. To Kill a Mockingbird took me back to being eight years old, the same age as its main character, Scout, and on a deeper level, it was a reminder that we still have a long way to go in accepting others and being more loving. It also proved that genuine souls are around us everywhere we go. They’re just too humble to announce it.
The first time I watched Tiffany Haddish on TV, she was telling a story about how an old guy died while she grinded on him at a bar mitzvah. Then of course I heard the story about her taking Will and Jada Pinkett Smith on a Groupon swamp tour. From there, I read about the $4,000 white Alexander McQueen dress that she insisted on wearing at the Girls Trip premiere, SNL, the Oscars, and, most recently, the MVT Movie & TV Awards. Haddish and her antics have been everywhere the past two years, and I wanted more.
Then I came across her memoir The Last Black Unicorn. You know how I feel about memoirs. This time was different.
Haddish’s standup comedy special famously proclaims, “She ready!” Me too, girl, me too.
I love books that challenge my opinions, what I think I know about the world and how I’d respond in certain situations (see The Patriots). Am I as forgiving as I think? Is my unconditional love really that unconditional, or can it be based on time and circumstance? Would I really stand up for what’s right in a very compromising situation? Point is: You never know unless you’re in someone else’s shoes. Outcomes are never accurately predicted.
Tayari Jones provides these existential questions in her 2018 smash, An American Marriage, which Oprah has promoted. You think you know what you’re getting when you read the book sleeve about a black man in the south being wrongly accused of a crime. The New York Times says it best. “An American Marriage tells us a story we think we know … But Jones’s story isn’t the one we are expecting.” It’s a story that had me asking “What would I do?” from start to finish and flipping furiously to learn what decisions the characters would make. And let’s be honest: If something is fine by Oprah, it’s fine be me too.
- What: Sing, Unburied, Sing
- Who: Jesmyn Ward
- Pages: 285
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Something Borrowed gave me life. It taught me to go after what I want even if it comes with pain and isn’t easy. It also provided a good deal of practical information. For example, it taught my 16-year-old self what sartorial means (lord, what a great word) and gave me insight into some pertinent acronyms, including “DBCD” (duty, breach, causation, and damages or, more importantly, Dex Buys Celebratory Dinner [take a hint, Rach!]) and “TTH” i.e., trying too hard. Rachel refers to a man when she explains it, but TTH could also be used to describe the last book I read.
It’s not that I didn’t like Sing, Unburied, Sing; it wasn’t on a lot of Best of 2017 lists for nothing. The story line was intriguing with descriptive scene-setting, but the language was almost too poetic. Yes, Ward wrote many beautiful lines, but I also had to reread several passages due to lack of clarity. It simply seemed as if Ward was trying too hard to write elegantly when she already had an interesting narrative in front of her, and TTH is grounds for three flames.