5 Books To Read On Social Justice That Go Beyond The Instructive

Jun 18, 2021
Originally published on June 18, 2021 4:35 pm

Saturday is Juneteenth — the day when enslaved people in Texas learned they were freed two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It's now a Federal holiday.

Some have turned to books to deepen their understanding of Juneteenth and past social injustices — and their long term consequences. Author Kiese Laymon says that while he understands the demand in the last year for instructive books, he's "more interested in incisive and innovative books."

Author Kiese Laymon signs copies of his book Long Division at Books and Books on July 11, 2013 in Coral Gables, Fla.
Vallery Jean / FilmMagic

He's recommending Bird Uncaged, Thick, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, The Prophets, and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Laymon has just revised and reissued his own debut novel Long Division. "In the last year, I thought about what accountability means for narrators and for creators of narrators. And I just didn't want that book to cause any harm," he tells NPR. "If I can go back into a text and not just make it better, make it more breathable, but also make it more ethical, I would be a fool not to do that."

Laymon says his reading recommendations "if you give yourself an opportunity, will make you feel feel good about the work we have to do, which can sound oxymoronic. But I think that's what these books do. We want to feel like we're being taken care of artistically. And I think these books do that."

Bird Uncaged, by Marlon Peterson

Bird Uncaged is a special book to me. I was an editor at Gawker maybe 7 years ago, and I published this essay by a young writer named Marlon Peterson about his time inside a prison and his relationships with the young people from his community who he met through letters. Some years later, Marlon has turned this essay, called Bird Uncaged, into a book that explores, among other things, his experience coming here as a as a kid of a Trinidadian immigrants. And, you know, he really throws the traditional incarceration narrative on its head. And the thing that I really love about this book — and all the other books that I am talking about today — are that the sentences are so beautiful. You know, you get talking a lot about what people deserve, what folks of color deserve, what Black folks deserve. And I think sometimes we don't necessarily like to state that Black people deserve, among other things, beautiful sentences and innovative art. And Marlon Peterson uses beautiful sentences to explore something that on the surface is not so beautiful. But I think what he shows us is that the interior — and if we use our interior to really kind of etch around what we see and explore [and] have been told is inevitable — we can find something ... socially revelatory. It's just an amazing book to me.

Thick, by Tressie McMillian Cottam

Tressie Cottam is one of the smartest people I will ever know – and I think [this] is that rare essay collection where each essay is strong and surprising and it's like portals of entry. But I think a lot like Damon Young's book, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker — all of the essays in Thick can exist by themselves, but they become sort of like superheroes — like this collective essayistic superhero — when they're connected to essays preceeding and proceeding them. One of the things I think Thick does is it takes us seriously as readers. Tressie says: I know you want to talk about politics and traditional red or Dem ways; I know you want to talk about race and traditional white or Black ways; I know you want to talk about beauty and traditional ways. And she's saying over and over again: I'm not doing that — you're going to have to work with me with this book. And I just think that's what makes it one of the most incredible essay collections that I will ever read. There's sound sociological work being done there, but it's also just amazing prose being wrapped around these incredible sociological topics. I'm most taken by the way Tressie expects us to come into these essays with traditional notions of race and power — and she doesn't spoon-feed, she sort of does that really essayistic move where she's just like: You're going to catch up. And by the end of the book, you feel like you've read a novel because all of the essays rely on one another in these really innovative ways.

The Prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr.

The Prophets is easily the most superb tutorial on loving, and actually writing, that I've read in the 21st century. I think that the only book that I've read [that] comes close to a higher degree of difficulty than this is a book that's really unlike this in a lot of ways, which is Imani Perry's Breathe — she's addressing her two sons in ways that just feel phenomenal. What Robert Jones is doing here is he is setting us in Mississippi, and we are in the loving relationship between Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved queer Black men. The book does not slowly walk you into the relationship. Robert Jones places us in the throes of their love, of their desire, of their fear — from Chapter One. But he also does this thing where he challenges us to understand origin narratives differently — like Robert Jones and The Prophets is saying emphatically on every page: Our origin narratives in this world are Black and queer; I'm not going to try to convince you, I'm going to accept that and I want you to accept that. And then accepting that our origin narratives are in our Gods, are and our understandings of catastrophe, are not just Black but also queer. He's saying that like our revolutions, our consequences are going to be different if we understand that. It is very historical, but it's so lushly written.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw

I read this book maybe over a year ago on my computer, as a draft, and I was maybe a third of the way through, and I literally said out loud that whatever we call the new American short story, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it. It is amazing ... You don't want to do homework. You want to feel like you are immersed in other people's lives. Deesha writes through these Black women's lives and their relationships to food and desire and church and secrets and secrets and secrets in this way — over nine stories. It's a short story collection that reads like an evocative novel, but every character is taken seriously and what she's really doing is she's recasting this notion of universality. There are no white characters in this book. These are Black women dealing with Black women. And one feels when they leave this book as if they have been immersed in the lives, the secrets, the church and, most importantly, that very thin line between intimacy and terror that Deesha Philyaw writes so beautifully. It's an incredible short story collection. And I also just think based on what happened last year with lots of the books that people were saying we should we should read — and those are incredible books — I just think sometimes the short story got lost. A short story often gets lost. And I think Deesha Philyaw is here to bring it back.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

I think most conversations about social justice are going to have something to do with Mississippi, which is where I'm from. Sing, Unburied, Sing is literally the greatest novel ever written by a Mississippi writer. And I think the greatest writer to come out of Mississippi is Jesmyn Ward. I think that's saying a lot. And I don't know that I can give the book more props that saying that. But at the core, Jesmyn is rewriting the American travel narrative and the American prison narrative. She's talking about what some people are calling the afterlife of slavery. We see and hear a 12-year-old who was incarcerated with grown men narrating parts of this story. The book doesn't attempt to convince us that carcerality was bad. What it actually does is ask us to hear the spirits of carcerality. And that might sound too overwhelming or too deep in trauma. But what it actually is, is she allows us to breathe almost as much as any book that I've read in the last five or 10 years, because she uses multiple narration, she uses multiple voices, and she uses the travel narrative to bring us into something that is wholly, familiarly unfamiliar — which is the life of the 12-year-old boy... Meanwhile, she's doing what only Jesmyn Ward can do with the way the actual environment, Mississippi smells the sound, bring the story alive. So on the surface, it appears to be steeped in like lots of heaviness — and it is that — but I think her prose brings out the life of all of these different characters and also just makes us rethink what it means to travel with spirits, as Jesmyn would say we all do.

This story was edited for radio by Courtney Dorning and Elena Burnett and was adapted for the web by Meghan Sullivan.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The typical summer reading list is escapist. But given that there's been so much interest in books that embrace some of the most troubled parts of American history, we wanted to offer you some suggestions that don't shy away from those things. And our guide - Kiese Layman. His 2013 novel, "Long Division," was a satire set in post-Hurricane Katrina Mississippi about teenagers, time travel and, yes, race. It's been revised and reissued. And we asked him here to talk about that process and the books and authors he wants us to discover. Kiese Layman is here with us now. Welcome to the program.

KIESE LAYMON: Thank you so much for having me, Audie. I am so happy to be here with you.

CORNISH: So we brought you here to talk about books that sort of have to do with social justice, which I feel like is fraught (laughter) in this last year in what I call...

LAYMON: Right.

CORNISH: ...The Great Awokening (ph). Trademark...

LAYMON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...That. But it means there are a lot of books that could sort of fit under this label. How do you think about it?

LAYMON: I think that last year, the nation was obsessed with how-to books and sort of, like, instructive books. You know, I think a lot of the nation, lots of white people specifically, were like, I should have learned this in school. Can you teach me? I understand why instructive books were so popular. But as a writer, you know, I'm more interested in incisive and innovative books. And so I think some of the most incisive, innovative books have come out since June last year. And I'm just excited to talk about some of them.

CORNISH: You've brought us a really interesting mix. And I want to start with one which is actually a memoir. It's by Marlon Peterson, and it's called "Bird Uncaged." What is it about this that struck you? And why does a memoir work for a sort of social justice conversation?

LAYMON: Yeah. "Bird Uncaged" is a special book to me. I was an editor at Gawker maybe seven years ago, and I published this essay by this young writer named Marlon Peterson about his time inside a prison and his relationships with the young people from his community who he met through letters. Seven years later, Marlon has turned this essay into a book that explores, among other things, like, his experience coming here as a kid of a Trinidadian immigrant. And, you know, he really throws the traditional carcerality narrative on its head.

And the thing that I really love about this book, and all the other books I'm going to talk about today, are that the sentences are so beautiful. You know, last year, we kept talking a lot about, like, what folks of color deserve, what Black folks deserve. And I think sometimes we don't necessarily, like, state that Black people deserve, among other things, like, beautiful sentences and innovative art.

And Marlon Peterson uses beautiful sentences to explore something that, on the surface, is not so beautiful. But I think what he shows us is that the interior - and if we use our interiors to, like, really kind of etch around what we see and explore and have been told is inevitable, we can find something not just, like, socially just, but something socially revelatory.

CORNISH: I want to talk about a novel that you've brought to this list as well. This is by Robert Jones Jr., and it's called "The Prophets." And this is a book that does touch on slavery, right? It's sort of rooted in that history. How are you thinking about adding a book like this to this list? Because I know I'm one of those people that - I get fatigued from trauma.

LAYMON: Right, right.

CORNISH: You know what I mean?

LAYMON: Right, right.

CORNISH: I get exhausted from it. And sometimes, that's not what I want to pick up for, like, my summer reading.

LAYMON: No doubt. And I think if we're going to be honest, like, not only do some of us get fatigued by trauma, I think some of us also get fatigued by watching people unsuccessfully, like, deal with the trauma. But what Robert Jones is doing here is he is setting us in Mississippi, and we are in the loving relationship between Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved queer Black man. The book does not slowly walk you into your relationship. Robert Jones places us in the throes of their love, of their desire, of their fear from Chapter 1.

But he also does this thing where he challenges us to understand our origin narratives in this world are Black and queer. I'm not going to try to convince you. I'm going to accept that. And I want you to accept that. And in accepting that, like, our origin narratives are and our gods are and our understandings of catastrophe are necessarily not just Black, but also queer, he's saying that, like, our revolutions, our consequences, are going to be different if we understand that.

CORNISH: What it doesn't sound like is homework, which I appreciate.

LAYMON: Right.

CORNISH: Because sometimes...

LAYMON: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...These lists feel like homework. You should read X because it is good...

LAYMON: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...For you. And it makes work around progressive issues sound like vegetables.

LAYMON: Absolutely. All of these books, if you give yourself an opportunity, will make you feel good about the work that we have to do, which can sound oxymoronic, but I think that's what these books do. We want to feel like we're being taken care of artistically, and I think these books do that.

CORNISH: One last selection you brought for us is actually a book of short stories, and it's called "The Secret Life (ph) Of Church Ladies."

LAYMON: Oh.

CORNISH: I wasn't familiar with this author, Deesha Philyaw. What can you tell us about her?

LAYMON: Deesha Philyaw - I read this book maybe over a year ago on my computer as a draft. And I literally said out loud that whatever we call the new American short story, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it. Deesha writes through these Black women's lives and their relationships to food and desire and church and secrets and secrets and secrets.

CORNISH: And all of this over a collection of - what? - nine stories that are interconnected...

LAYMON: Over nine stories.

CORNISH: ...But are essentially short stories.

LAYMON: Absolutely. It's a short story collection that, again, reads like an evocative novel. And one feels, when they leave this book, as if they have been immersed in the lives, the secrets, the church and most importantly, the sort of intimacy that Deesha Philyaw, like, writes so beautifully.

CORNISH: Your book, "Long Division," as we said, is being reissued with some revisions, I understand.

LAYMON: Yes, indeed.

CORNISH: Are these revisions that were happening in the last year or - I'm wondering how both the pandemic and the racial reckoning and all...

LAYMON: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...These things have affected your creativity.

LAYMON: What I think the pandemic and the awakening have done is they made me reconsider what narrative responsibility looks like from an author. So for instance, in "Long Division," I had characters saying pejorative words that I don't say. They were spelled out. And I don't know that the book did a good job of critiquing, like, the characters' investments in, like, anti-Blackness or anti-Semitism or misogyny. Like, the characters were there, and I was trying to make the book critique that. But in revision, I made sure that the characters are still lush, flawed kids who are, you know, all of those isms that we talk about, but the book is more aware of it.

CORNISH: That's fascinating because there are a lot of creatives out there who kind of rebuff or are defensive of the idea that they need to do that kind of thinking about their work, right? And it's interesting to hear you say that because your book is from 2013. You could argue, hey, this is the time capsule, this is the story that it was back then. That's the context for it. It doesn't need to change.

LAYMON: Absolutely. You know, I understand when artists say that. But, you know, I have the responsibility to evolve as I want my readers and my characters to. And if I can go back into a text and not just make it better, make it more breathable, but also make it more ethical, I would be a fool not to do that. I don't think that we can ask our students to buy into revision if we don't buy into revision as published authors. It just doesn't make sense to me.

CORNISH: Kiese Laymon, there is so much to talk to you about.

LAYMON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: This was such a good conversation. Thank you so much for sharing this list and also sharing your thoughts on your own writing. It was really, really amazing.

LAYMON: Thank you so much, Audie, for making space for us and for all the incredible work that you do. I appreciate this.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKIE WILSON SONG, "(YOUR LOVE KEEPS LIFTING ME) HIGHER AND HIGHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.