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A Reading List for Fresh Perspectives

There’s no shortage of stories to help you shift your gaze and see things in a new way

By Nisha Patel, ’15 BCom, ’15 LeadCert

December 17, 2020 •

In the summer of 2020, I began to lose hope that politicians could effect change in my community. I had spent the early years of the previous decade obsessed with the idea of running for office to bring about change. It has taken me years to understand the narrow-mindedness of this type of thinking. But it’s also totally in line with how young university students are taught to see the system as their playground, with room to move within it rather than beyond it.

What I have learned instead is that community rarely starts in the mayor’s office, that community leaders are not the ones with faces on bus benches. Real change happens through mutual aid, lifting up those with the biggest burden, and diverting resources in ways that empower agency. 

This tumultuous year has revealed the stark underpinnings of racism in our society, and I wanted to learn more. Here’s my reading list for doing just that. These works, published in the last few years, have taught me about human failings. But they also point me to the new beginnings we can achieve together. 

The Skin We’re In  by Desmond Cole 

Journalist Cole tells us about one year in his life, 2017, marked by the typical police brutality faced by Black people in Canada. He shows us the many ways Black people, tired and grieving, respond to senseless trauma. While it is easy to be grateful for the system that allows many to flourish, it is important to acknowledge that Black people face continued racism in the same system. The purpose of the justice system, Cole says, “has always been to discipline Black people.” That’s an unrelenting theme throughout the book. Cole reveals the ubiquitous nature of white supremacy he felt even as a child when, in an Oshawa, Ont., school in Grade 1, another student asked him for the “skin-coloured” pencil crayon. It wasn’t the brown or black one. 

This is How We Disappear  by Titilope Sonuga, ’08 BSc CivEng

This book of poetry is an exploration of the deep and insistent violence that has been aimed at girls and women from birth, to expectations of womanhood, to death. Sonuga’s use of language is loving and full and unbreakably honest, paying attention to the way her body, among many of the bodies around her, expresses grief, love and joy. It is her particular poetic gift to use so many unfolding, blooming metaphors for the contrasting hurt that women experience. Sonuga asks the reader: does this make you angry? And if not, are you listening?

The Subtweet  by Vivek Shraya,’03 BA

Shraya opens her novel with a direct, dissecting look into how her character, Neela, lives a life of fame and creativity, and how her experiences manifest in a brown girl’s body. We get an inside look at the workings of the white gaze, and how marginalized artists cater to stereotypes in the name of being representative. Shraya’s stories are as inviting as they are complicated in their commentary on artistic life. Her self-focused protagonists are refreshing and offer an honest and disturbingly true-to-life take on creative identity. Neela reflects on her own songs and says she wants not to be timely but “everlasting.”

I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes From the End of the World  by Kai Cheng Thom

In this three-part collection of personal essays and poetry, Thom prompts us to reimagine how we’d administer justice through a kinder model. Thom points out, starkly, that there has been a growth of “increasingly fragmented identity politics and the performance of virtue” that has been creeping into the social justice left. She offers some pathways through the challenges these phenomena pose. Thom’s experience as a trans East Asian woman frames and emboldens the questions she asks us to consider, such as: what are the problems in the culture of the social justice movement? There’s a quote that often gets attributed to 19th-century anarchist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” Thom riffs on this quote, inviting us along. “If I can’t ask questions, then it’s not my revolution,” she writes. 

Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City  by Tanya Talaga

Talaga takes a profound and investigative look at the brutality of anti-Indigenous history. Her book, which won the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize for narrative non-fiction, examines the lives of seven youth living in Thunder Bay, Ont., where they relocated for high school. All were from northern communities and all died tragically in an 11-year span. A frightening story, it’s one that is increasingly common for youth from Indigenous communities. Reading Talaga’s account is necessary to understand how the Canadian state has left communities in crisis. This is required reading for anyone who calls this land home. 

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us  by Hanif Abdurraqib

American poet and essayist Abdurraqib explores the effects of music and culture on the moments that shape our identities in this series of personal essays. From his descriptions of Chance the Rapper’s album Coloring Book with its all-season joy, to his account of the near-holy way Bruce Springsteen takes to the stage, Abdurraqib gives a thoughtful, loving take on musical storytelling. Join him in his ruminations and reflections and you’ll be rewarded by experiencing life as only a poet and a lover of good storytelling can reveal.

About the Author

Nisha Patel is the City of Edmonton’s Poet Laureate and Canadian Individual Slam Champion (2019). You can find her at nishapatel.ca.

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