Lit recs for talking about race and gender | Book Swap | Chicago Reader

Lit recs for talking about race and gender 

The current book obsessions of Reader digital managing editor Karen Hawkins and author, visual artist, and educator Xandria Phillips.

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In Book Swap, a Reader staffer recommends two to five books and then asks a local wordsmith, literary enthusiast, or publishing-adjacent professional to do the same. In this installment, Reader digital managing editor Karen Hawkins swaps book suggestions with author, visual artist, and educator Xandria Phillips.

Karen Hawkins, Reader digital managing editor

We're talking a lot about women's anger these days, thank goodness. But what's been missing for me is validation for my rage as a black lesbian who feels surrounded by straight white women who demand to be heard about sexism but aren't willing to listen when I talk about race and LGBTQ issues. Fortunately for me there's Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (St. Martin's) by Brittney Cooper. She had me at the opening words, "This is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women." If you ever spot me on the CTA angrily muttering "YES, girl" to myself, this is probably what I'm reading.

Conversely, if you see me snort-laughing on the bus, there's a good chance I'm enjoying I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual (Holt) by wickedly witty Chicago author Luvvie Ajayi. I count on Luvvie's blog Awesomely Luvvie to concisely—and hilariously—articulate the things I've been thinking but didn't want to say out loud about pop culture, -isms, tech, and more, and her book delivers in the same way. Reading it feels like sitting down for tea with your funniest friend who is proud to be petty, pulls no punches, and has strong opinions about just about everything.

To balance out all of that rage and pettiness, I've also been interested in books devoted to, well, how to be less angry and petty. Enter Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life (Currency). Achor makes a compelling argument for being consistently grateful, kind, and gracious, both for your own personal satisfaction and for building and managing teams. It's enough to offset even the longest el ride's worth of rage and cackling.

Xandria Phillips, author, visual artist, educator

Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton (University of Minnesota Press) is the book from 2018 that has continued to populate my headspace daily. I think we live in a time when gender is considered precious and overexamined. Snorton shows us that gender has always been elastic—and a matter of life and death for black people, beginning with its mutability during chattel slavery. The language in Black on Both Sides manages a buoyancy in its lyricism despite its weighty context. The tether I feel to this book is in the consistent subversion of gender expectations as a means to liberation. Here I read the ways my ancestors' very breath was abolition.

I don't think we truly deserve Invasive Species by Marwa Helal (Nightboat Books), an Egyptian-born writer currently based in New York, but here I am holding it in my hands. It opens with a quote from Chinua Achebe: "Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in / English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it." Marwa succeeds in "doing unheard of things" with the English language. Pitched as poetry, this book shifts through hybrid forms as a means of addressing migration, displacement, and the intimate violence of the state. Whether she's writing about humanity, the mystic, or future ghosts, Marwa has the ability to foretell the footholds of disaster. Invasive Species is the kind of book I sleep with under my pillow hoping its lushness will infiltrate my dreams.

Presently I am reading through An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour from the Harvard Art Museums (Atelier Éditions), and I have been savoring the feeling of learning for the sake of pleasure. Following a brief essay on each color's historical rendering, every chapter displays numerous pigments both natural and man-made, archived from all over the world. I must trouble the complicated pleasure I derive from this book because it is lanced with colonial ideology. Every bottled pigment I see from a region in the global south raises a question: Was the acquisition consensual? I relish this book with an eye of wonder and an eye of curiosity. Blood has been spilt for the use of color. What we do and say with it might just be our most subconscious political acts.   v

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