My world feels really big and oh so small right now. Thanks to the world wide web, I can find out what is happening around the globe anytime I open Facebook. Thanks to COVID19 Stay-at-Home orders from our governor, and curfew from our mayor, my world also feels TINY as my daily outings consist mainly of my bitty neighborhood.
Times like these make me especially glad to be a reader. Books concurrently expand my horizons and give me a mental break from the very immediate devastation and tragedy of daily news. Books have the power to question my assumptions and perspective, and yet still give me the space to process peacefully. It is as if books know I need a minute to think before I can answer. I believe books are one of the world’s most powerful agents of cultural change.
I’m wondering – Has a book ever introduced you to a new culture or human experience in a profound way? Which book invited you into someone else’s life for a few minutes, opening your eyes to a whole new world? Did you expect to be changed when you opened the cover, or was the door to something new thoroughly disguised as entertainment?
About 20 years ago, I read a very thick novel that I just could not set aside about life in India. I remember carrying this giant of a book to the gym at 5:30 am so I could read it on the stair stepper and even between bicep curls. The avalanche of misery pushing the characters down, down, down through an inescapable caste system captured me as an American reader who longs for the happy ending. But an American story this was not, and ended in tears (mine). It saddens me that I do not remember the book’s title or author because I would recommend it to you AND reread it! Regardless of those very important details, the book fed into what has become a lifelong fascination with Indian culture.
About 10 years later, I read The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob. Once again, I started a book that I could hardly put down. This one opened more doors to Indian culture, specifically the impact of culture on Indian families who immigrate to the US. I remember there being some very difficult things and many, many adult themes. I also recall reading it in the driver’s seat of my car, sitting in my own driveway dying to know what happens next while my kids waited for me to do the actual next thing in our lives – this book really got to me. Mira Jacob introduced me to the concept of finding/creating community in a foreign country in a way that was both attractive and unattractive. She described a very intense community of “belonging” that some of the characters pursued and some despised. In fact, the younger generation of characters in the story tended to feel oppressed by the close knit community of fellow immigrants. It is worth mentioning, as a food-lover, I ate up (pardon the pun) the descriptions of Indian dishes and the concept of food as a cure-all in any culture. I think food can also bridge many gaps and open doors to relationships across cultures.
And while I prefer the ‘could be real, but isn’t actually’ novels that allow me a little space from the reality, and sometimes horrors of real life, I’ve also found a couple of memoirs that I found quite touching, humorous and educational at the same time.
Of course I love Mindy Kaling (honestly, who doesn’t love Mindy???) and her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? The peek into her childhood years and her parent’s definition of career success is a little mind blowing for this American girl who was encouraged to study hard, and follow my dreams, whatever they may be. Kaling’s parents even thought knitting was a waste of time compared to studying and that hits a little too close to home for this reader!
The second book I’ve recently enjoyed is In Stitches by Anthony Youn, a Korean-American. Much like Kaling’s family, there was a tremendous amount of parental pressure on young Youn, not just to be Somebody, but to be a particular kind of Somebody with a particular kind of career. Dr. Youn tells the story beautifully, keeping me laughing, and warming my heart as he shares his family’s own history and how they came to a place each individual could grow as a Korean-American.
This week I have been so happy to hear that many of the books about the Black American experience are sold out. WOW! Not only does it make me happy that so many people are reading (and washing hands, thanks to COVID which is almost all I’ve ever wished for), but people are allowing books to open their hearts and minds to cultures and experiences different from their own. And while there is a great deal of pain in our big/small worlds right now, I hope we are each able to find the bright spots of change and growth as we develop in understanding the richness and complexities of our neighbors.