A Year in Reading: Bridgett M. Davis

For me, this year
of reading is forever captured by the words of our literary genius Toni
Morrison. Upon hearing of her death, I clung to her now famous quote: “We
die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the
measure of our lives.”

And then I did what I’m sure millions of other readers did: pulled a Morrison classic from the bookshelf—for me it was Sula—and devoured it anew, hungry for the language that only she could do. That slim perfect novel entered my life at a critical moment, when I was searching for a way to understand what I might uniquely say, as a young black woman writer. Sula, in its astonishing portrayal of a black woman like none we’d seen before, liberated my understanding of what was possible.

Weeks ago, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I participated in a continuous reading of Beloved for ‘Til Victory Is Won, a teach-in examining freedom movements from the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter. Reciting Morrison’s work out loud reminded me of its power and urgency and beauty, because sometimes we must be reminded of what we already know to be true. After that experience, I felt compelled to listen to Beloved on audiobook, to remain awash in the language, this time gifted to me in Morrison’s own arresting voice.

During Morrison’s memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Oprah Winfrey chose as part of her tribute to read a favorite passage from Song of Solomon. (“If I got a home, you got one too…Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on – can you hear me? Pass it on!”). Given her masterful delivery, Oprah reminded us all of the singular and stunning gut-punch of Morrison’s writing. Again, it sent me back to the text, and I went home and re-read Song of Solomon, consuming its pages the way you do a favorite meal cooked by a favorite aunt, one you haven’t eaten in years, yet brings back with each mouthful a deep sense memory. It had been decades since I first read each of those iconic novels; I now understood I’d been bereft without knowing it, had missed the intimacy I once had with those characters and that narrator, the way you realize how much you’ve missed a dear friend only when you actually see her again.

Before the world shifted on August 5, I was busily reading newly released books while traveling on book tour for my own memoir that came out this year, The World According to Fannie Davis. I love reading while I travel, as there’s so many undisturbed snatches of time that I don’t manage to get at home: waiting at airport gates, flying on planes for hours, resting in hotel rooms before events… In those cherished moments, I read five original and compelling memoirs.

Sarah M. Broom’s National Book Award-winning The Yellow House has some of the most tactile and redolent writing I’ve ever read, is beautiful in so many ways. And it is, among other things, a breathtaking story of Broom’s own quest for both nest and adventure. Imani Perry’s Breathe was for me, as the mother of a 20-year-old black son, both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. That’s how apt and searing and moving is this love letter of a book that Perry writes to her own two African-American sons. Claudia E. Hernandez’s Knitting the Fog, winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize (full disclosure: I was a judge), is a lyrically fresh account of her life as a Guatemalan immigrant, and a story we simply haven’t seen before, not like this. Good Talk, Mira Jacob’s illustrated conversations with her son about race, manages to be both visually inviting and a captivating read, thanks to both her candor and craft. The book is so fantastic, it ups the ante for what graphic memoir can be. Serial memoirist Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance moved me for its naked honesty and deft rendering of a huge family secret, that her beloved Jewish father was not her biological father. As I’ve written my own story of a family secret, I appreciated how Shapiro shared her personal story all the while examining larger cultural implications of that revelation.

Speaking of cultural implications, I crave stories about black women’s lives that situate them within historical context, which is still so often a rarity. That’s why I was intrigued by Josh Levin’s book about the original “welfare queen” demonized by the media and politicians in the ’70s and ’80s. The Queen is a rich character-study of a complicated black woman that Levin rescues from simplistic stereotyping. It’s also an apt study of the ways black women have been demonized in society; the entire time I was reading its exhaustively researched pages, I kept saying to myself both “Of course!” and “Who knew?”

As palate cleansers, I also read two refreshing narratives that took me away from my usual choice of genres. The first is the fun thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Set in Nigeria, it’s so sly and charming that I turned the pages greedily and couldn’t stop smiling. In stark contrast, DaMaris B. Hill’s A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is a “narrative-in-verse” bearing witness to incarcerated black women across American history. That description does not do justice to the imaginative, sweeping account that Hill renders of black women she reclaims from history—some we’ve heard of, many we haven’t—who were bound in myriad ways, having lost their freedom at the hands of America’s cruelty. That she does so vis-à-vis tribute poems to each woman is a marvel. It’s a heart-wrenching read, but also a soul-stirring one.

Speaking again of Oprah, I recently re-watched her riveting performance in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as I begin to think about a film adaptation of my own mother’s story. This led me back to the source, Rebecca Skloot’s book of the same name, which remains an astonishing story of two women—Lacks herself, who’d been all but lost to history despite her own cells’ seismic contribution to science, and her daughter Deborah whose mission in life was to right that wrong. It’s a powerful corrective.

I see clearly the theme that has emerged from my reading list this year: women’s lives revealed, reclaimed, reimagined. Feels right. As does ending with our beloved Toni Morrison’s adage:

Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.

A Year in Reading: Bridgett M. Davis

Throughout this year, I’ve been writing a proposal for a memoir about my mother. To inspire myself, and to indulge in others’ work before I’m afraid of being influenced by it, I’ve read and reread several memoirs. Of those, I came away from Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World in renewed awe and gratitude for how she shows a shimmering portrait of mutual love. With Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, I marveled at the wit and razor-sharp lens she brought to bear on her own pretensions, born of racist confines. I found Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, with its daughter raised by a single gay father in 1970s San Francisco, bearing witness in an essential way. I then discovered on my own bookshelf Hilton Als’s searing and astonishing book The Women. I’m almost embarrassed to say I bought this book off a discounted-book table at an indie bookstore years ago and hadn’t yet read it. I devoured it as if to make up for lost time. No one, anywhere, has yet to convey with such unapologetic rigor and compassion the interior life of a black mother, and I haven’t fully recovered from it.

When Feminist Press announced its Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, I again reread my worn copy of her seminal novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, just to remind myself anew how books change lives, how that book changed mine. Also, I’m fortunate enough to direct a writer-in-residence program at the college where I teach, which allows me to invite several writers to campus. It makes for a natural homework assignment, as I always read their work before they arrive. Lucky me that my homework this year included Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Flood of Fire about the opium trade in 1800s India (read the entire trilogy and be amazed); Monique Truong’s magnificent Bitter in the Mouth, about a Vietnamese-American growing up in the American South; Marilyn Nelson’s poignant memoir, How I Discovered Poetry (which took me back to her Faster Than Light: New And Selected Poems); and Morgan Parker’s smart, sharp poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (stay tuned for her 2017 release, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce).

This year also marks my son’s senior year in high school; he wants to pursue acting. His drama teacher assigned Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist and, as I sometimes do, I read the book alongside him. In light of the election, Deveare Smith acutely reminded me that artists’ activism is everything. Speaking of which, on Sunday following the election, I joined authors Nicole Dennis-Benn and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh on a panel for The Hustle reading series in Brooklyn. It was soothing to come together around literature, and I’m grateful to now have Dennis-Benn’s revelatory novel, Here Comes the Sun, at my bedside to tumble into each night, like a balm. But I’m still reeling from something voiced during that panel. When I noted that a Donald Trump presidency (writing that phrase feels so tawdry and sad) required us all to “do more,” Al-Khatahtbeh said, “I plan to do less.” She said that since 9/11, she and other women Muslim writers and activists had spent untold time and resources and psychic energy trying to convince “them” that they too are Americans, that they too love this country, that they are not the enemy. She said, essentially, that it’s time for others to do that work. Amen.

I went home and read her slim, explosive memoir, Muslim Girl, and was startled by its candor and force, and also by how prescient the book is. In describing her experience of being in Britain this past summer, Al-Khatahtbeh wrote: “As impossible as we were hoping — imagining — the rise of racism to be, it can, in fact, win. The U.K.’s decision (Brexit), was a clear demonstration of that, and, at worst, it was a sign of what was waiting for us come November.”

I’m like most of you, I’m sure, in that I’ve read a lot of essays and op-eds and news stories and manifestos since the election. Nothing shook me like the words of Sarah Kendzior, who has studied authoritarian states for over a decade. “My Fellow Americans, I have a favor to ask you,” she wrote. “I want you to write about who you are…what standards you hold for yourself and for others…Never lose sight of…what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.”

Looking back, I see now that the best books I’ve read this year are themselves a prescient compilation, a kind of personalized, serial guidebook for the new world order we now inhabit; it’s an indicator of what I believe in, who I strive to be, what matters to me. I plan to remind myself of this in the dark days ahead, remind myself that it’s important to remain true to my own ideals.

What’s really important, as we enter 2017, is that we validate one another’s humanity. May good books help us do just that.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005