What I have been reading #3

7th book of 2021 – “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett.

This is the story of twin sisters, Stella and Desiree, of mixed race but with very light skin. Identical and once inseparable, they end up following very different paths, when one is mistaken for white and offered a secretarial job where she starts mingling with white people and, eventually, living like one of them. It is, of course, a book about race and racism. But it is so much more than that. It is a book about identity, belonging, family, love, dreams, grief, fear, courage, acceptance, conformity, rejection…

The way it is written, is beautiful, too. Rather than learning about the sisters by reading their stories, we learn about them by reading the stories around them. This storytelling style reminds me of negative space drawing, where you “reveal” an object by focusing on (and drawing) the shape of the space around the object. For instance, by drawing a triangle you reveal an arm resting on the hip. 

It’s such a beautiful book. I am glad to see that it is on the International Booker Prize long list for 2021.

8th book of 2021 – “Thinking Of Europe – A continent caught in 27 snapshots of 27 syllables” by Arjan Tupan.

A book of 27 poems, one for each EU country. It’s also a love letter to Europe, all the more poignant to me now  that the UK abandoned the EU project. 

What I like about Arjan’s poems is that they always manage to make the ordinary shine. Feel special. I also admire the discipline of expressing oneself in the confines of the tritriplicata – a form invented by Arjan himself, composed of 27 syllables, distributed in lines of 3, 6, 9, 6 and 3 syllables, each.

I particularly liked the “Sakura” and “Thunder” poems. “Sakura” because it reminded me that beauty can be anywhere – and the pandemic certainly forced us to focus on the here and now, not future holidays to exotic destinations. It’s a curious thought given that I met Arjan on Twitter, because of our shared love of travel (on the #TTOT community). “Thunder” because it reminded me of being caught in a thunderstorm in Greece with the kids when they were little: we were soaked to the bone, but laughing so much that our cheeks hurt. Thank you for the memory!

This is a self-published book, and I would encourage you to check (and support) Arjan’s work over on https://www.buymeacoffee.com/arjan/e/21031

9th book of 2021 – “Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini

The book unpacks the concept of race, since its first formalisation in the 18th century. Saini finds that, over and over again, science debunks the idea of race as a biological entity because there is more genetic variation within any subgroup (e.g., Europeans) than between one group and the other (e.g., Europeans vs North Africans); moreover, variations in outcomes (e.g., illness, academic performance….) are consistently explained away by socio-economic factors, rather than genetic ones (e.g., Hypertension among Black Americans).

If there is no genetic basis for race, then why does the idea persist? Saini provides two uncomfortable answers. First, the idea that inherent characteristics can justify differential outcomes is very convenient for those in power. For instance, it can justify the enslaving and trafficking of certain groups; it can support the occupation of native territories; and it can excuse poor health and educational outcomes for socially deprived segments of the population. Second, as with other socially-constructed concepts, our efforts to collect and interpret data are influenced by our own individual biases. For instance, when a 24,000 years old skeleton of a small boy was discovered in south-central Siberia, and DNA analysis of the skeleton revealed genetic markers found in many Western Europeans, the conclusion was that the boy was part of group migrating from Western Europe to Siberia (because the prevalent assumption was that Europe was the centre of civilisation); whereas, most likely, the boy was part of a group moving from East to West, meaning that the genetic markers found in many Western Europeans are from Siberian origin, and not the other way around.

The search for race as a biological (rather than a social) phenomenon is like the search for witches: if you believe that it exists, you will find evidence that supports it, and resist all evidence to the contrary.

Incidentally, I came across this helpful chart, on Twitter (Shared by @HollyDunsworth):

Which books have caught your attention, lately?

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