Friday, January 29, 2010

Books I've Cherished

I'm following Zetta's lead and taking the Diversity Roll Call: Paradigm Shifts assignment posted over at Color Online:

Several books come immediately to mind when I think of works that shifted the way I see things--that made an impact on my life's decisions: SISTER OUTSIDER, by Audre Lorde; THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET, by Sandra Cisneros; MEAN SPIRIT, by Linda Hogan; WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, by Marge Piercy; The FREE RENUNCIATES trilogy by Marion Zimmer Bradley; SHATTERED GLASS, by Elaine Bergstrom; and WILD SEED, by Octavia Butler.

All of these are adult books that were written before there was a category for YA. But I certainly read them when I was a YA, and they had a tremendous impact on who I became and how I saw the world around me.

SISTER OUTSIDER began my journey into looking at the world through a Black feminist lens. It opened me up to works by June Jordan, bell hooks, Dionne Brand, Cherie Moraga, Joy Kagawa, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Jeanette Winterson, Dorothy Allison, the rest of Ms. Lorde's writings, and many other unapologetic feminists of colour -- women whose words gave me ways to express aspects of myself I'd never thought could be valued.

THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET was the first book I read in print that seemed so utterly accessible. It showed me my heart, my innermost thoughts and feelings on a page where someone else wrote the words. I was simply amazed that this was possible. I loved the characters in this book -- felt like I knew them; that most of them were family.

MEAN SPIRIT blew my world apart. The writing, the magnitude and scope of the events Ms. Hogan described, and the sheer devastation of what this particular community experienced was a shattering revelation. I had read lots of non-fiction about the history of the Americas, and spent long nights chatting with First Nations friends and colleagues, and I thought I was pretty knowledgeable on the issues and topics. But when I read this book, I realized what a difference it makes reading about these types of events through story. Through fiction. And through the eyes of characters that live and breathe on the page. It was an ambitious undertaking, and Ms. Hogan did it masterfully. In my opinion, this book is one of the most brilliant and under-valued gems of fiction--multicultural or otherwise. It should be a MUST READ in every class that looks at literature by marginalized voices, and any and every class that studies American history.

WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME was shoved into my hands by a close friend. "READ THIS," she said. And I did, non-stop from the moment I opened the book. I had never read a work of feminist science-fiction before this book. I was amazed at Ms. Piercy's imagination, and her feminist commentary woven throughout the narrative. It was the first time I discovered that feminism and a social commentary could be merged with not only fiction (I'd discovered this with Audre Lorde's book), but with science-fiction. I was hooked.
The FREE RENUNCIATES trilogy and SHATTERED GLASS were books I read rather close together. Like Piercy's novel, both of these books showed me how magical feminism threaded through fantasy could be for young readers like myself. It was the first time I was seeing kick-ass heroines who needed no saving, who were out there finding their own destinies and who were shaping the world around them. SHATTERED GLASS was the first feminist vampire novel I'd ever read. The protagonist was a strong woman who was unashamed of her own sexuality and sensuality, and matched the men around her in power and ability. The concepts Ms. Bergstrom used in this novel, i.e. "vegetarian" vampires (who don't prey on humans) are the same ones Meyers later used in her mega-hit series.

And last (but certainly not least!), is Butler's WILD SEED. This book was a merging of all of the above, and really set the bar for every feminist, socially conscious fantasy/sci-fi novel I've read since. I found this book at a center for LGBTQ folks during a meeting, and started flipping through. By the end of the meeting, I was a third of the way through and could not put it down. I smuggled it home, read it that night, then smuggled it back the next day. Bad, I know. But such is the power of Ms. Butler's work. In WILD SEED, I saw characters and story and socially conscious narrative elevated to well beyond an art. I was completely absorbed in the story of these two "lovers." Their story was as epic and sweeping as any romance novel or Bollywood film, but there were layers of profound insight and revelations that struck at the very core of my belief systems. It's a book and experience I've absolutely cherished.

All of these books and authors have influenced my own work in some way. I am indebted to all of them, and so many others for breaking ground, fighting tirelessly to make way so that stories like mine and those of other marginalized voices could make their way into the world.


Zetta said...

WOW--and my TBR list grows again...had never even heard of those Bradley titles...thanks!

Neesha Meminger said...

Zetta, if you haven't read MEAN SPIRIT, you absolutely MUST. In a way, WISH reminds me of some of what Linda Hogan did in terms of writing historical fiction through a socio-political lens, and writing the violence and inhumanity of relentless oppression and persecution in a way that is readable, that is still story. And that still offers hope. I taught this book for years to undergrads and loved it more each year.

susan said...


You are a powerhouse! I've linked you on our FB page and will link to you for Little Lov'n Monday.

I haven't heard of Mean Spirit either. Will look for it.


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