Last Year’s Words, Next Year’s Voice

I have a love-hate relationship with social media, particularly Facebook. What I love: seeing pictures, knowing what old friends and acquaintances are up to, reading about things that can be conversation starters in social settings, keeping up with family members and feeling close to my nieces and nephews even though I am far away, and following things like WordPorn and Humans of New York. What I hate: the sheer amount of time I spend on it, the lack of self-control I have when it comes to checking my newsfeed 1,000 times a day, ignorant discussions, any reminder that Donald Trump is still president, the online confrontations that can be misread and misunderstood in a hundred ways, and the comparison trap. Something else I love: the memories. Because I am a ‘90’s kid, because I was reaching adolescence during the birth of the Internet as we know it today, because I come from MySpace and Xanga, I went through a period of posting (often emo-sounding) quotes as status updates. However, once I started teaching, these quotes took a literary turn, and they often remind me of things I read that I have forgotten.

Today’s author of choice: T.S. Eliot.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
                     – From “Little Gidding (No. 4 of ‘Four Quartets’)”

T.S. Eliot is a good friend of mine. I discovered him in college, and fell in love with him during my first year or so of teaching, and continue to revisit him over the years. His poetry is often melancholy, fragmented, and true, and that is my favorite kind. I can sit down and read “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in one sitting and not fully understand the meaning of the work as a whole (#aplit), but I leave the text impacted by words that resonate deeply, like “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons,” and questions such as “do I dare and do I dare?” and “do I dare disturb the universe?”

On New Year’s Eve, as the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 were not going quite as planned, I came across this quote on my newsfeed. There are lots of “last year’s words” and “last year’s language” I am putting to rest: negative self-talk, lies I tell myself, and lies I let others tell me. I enthusiastically embrace “next year’s words,” this new voice of mine that speaks truth, love, kindness, joy, honesty, and contentment. However, on a simpler level, I am looking back on what I read and what I want to read. As an English teacher, a lifetime reader, a writer, and a thinker, I have an infinite list of books to-read. Many factors play into what ends up in my hands and when, but here are a few of the things I read in 2018 and here is what I am looking forward to reading in 2019.

2018

  1. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

jesmyn ward

Why I read this book: Jesmyn Ward was recommended to me by Professor Himelstein at the University of New Orleans. I was finishing up my last semester of classwork for my masters in teaching when I was tasked with selecting an independent reading novel. During a conference with Himelstein, he listened to my reading history and promptly interrupted with “You’ve read a lot of white people. Read more writers of color.” This startled me a little bit because I consider myself to be passionately devoted to racial equality, but when it comes to what I’ve read, Himelstein – as the best teachers often are – was completely right. From the authors he recommended to me, I chose Jesmyn Ward because she fit the demographic, she is a creative writing professor at Tulane University, and she is considered a local New Orleans (/Mississippi) writer. For class I read Sing, Unburied, Sing and Men We Reaped. I fell in love with Ward’s sincerity and frankness, and I couldn’t get enough of her realistic – often brutal – subject matter. On one level, Salvage the Bones is about one girl’s experience during Hurricane Katrina, but I got so lost in the narrator’s story that I almost forgot entirely that Hurricane Katrina happened in the book. Really it’s a coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence novel about a girl growing up in a family that struggles just to survive and find meaning in their lives while fighting poverty, lack of education, addiction, and strained family relationships.

To whom I recommend this book: My students who want to read a narrator that is like them, local readers who want or need to be exposed to local writers, or anyone who is interested in good contemporary literature. Of the three books by Ward that I have read so far, this has been my favorite.

P.S. The Kindle version is $2.99 right now, and it is worth every penny.

  1. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

purple hibiscus

Why I read this book: I first watched Adichie’s TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” in Dr. Pat Austin’s class on multiculturalism in the classroom, which I took the summer of 2016. When I signed up for the course – which was a graduation requirement – I had no idea that 2016 would be the year I would transition from a predominantly white private school to a high-needs public school with the most ethnically diverse student population in Jefferson Parish. I also didn’t know that Dr. Austin would become not only one of my most favorite professors, but also one of my dearest friends.

That said, I have since shown the TedTalk multiple times to my students, used it as the foundation for an English IV course, and shared it with friends and family members. I have also started to explore Adichie’s books. I read Americanah first, which I liked but didn’t love, and this year I read Purple Hibiscus, which I liked and loved.

This novel tells the story of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in an upper-middle class family in Nigeria. The political turmoil taking place in her country parallels the turmoil taking place in her family, carefully hidden underneath a well-crafted facade. This novel disrupts the “single story” many Americans might have of Africans – that they all live in poverty, dwelling in huts and shacks, drawing water from a well. Kambili is relatable and genuine, and her experiences cross the boundaries of socioeconomic status. This book addresses bondage, freedom, family, abuse, and hope in a striking yet beautiful way. Also, this book includes a significant shift I did not see coming. Plot twists are hard to pull of well, but Adichie does it.

To whom I recommend this book: My students who want to know more about “real” Africans, readers who are looking to broaden the scope and range of their repertoire, or anyone who wants to get lost in a good story.

  1. Becoming by Michelle Obama

becoming

This was my final completed read in 2018, which I finished on Christmas Day while stealing a few minutes to myself.

Why I read this book: A friend of mine from college, Josh, used to ask me for book recommendations. Though he was not an English major he did like to read, and he tended to like the things I recommended. Recently he posted on Facebook that he wanted some suggestions from everyone on what to read next. I suggested a handful of books – among them Salvage the Bones – and then private messaged him to say that, depending on what he chose to read, I would read with him. He promptly responded and gave me a list of four options and said to pick one. Becoming was on the list, and that’s the one I chose. I chose it because I was interested in reading it with someone – Josh – who had a similar background and value system as I do but who also might lean a little more conservatively on the political spectrum. I also chose this book because I knew it would get lost in my to-read list if I didn’t act quickly. It became the first book in a while to keep me up late on a school night because I didn’t want to put it down.

I loved reading Michelle’s story and getting to know her personally (yes, we are on a first-name basis now!). For those who may not align with her politics or who associate the name Obama with anti-Christ or socialist (eye roll), I challenge you to give the book a chance. It is not very political – though she does, at times, refer to her political beliefs – and it is more about one woman’s journey towards becoming an educated, contributing member of society, a wife and mother, and a career woman. She talks about why she advocates for the health and education of children, what motivated her to plant a garden at the White House, and how carefully she had to consider every decision she has made because of her position, visibility, and race.

To whom I recommend this book: Everyone. Josh enjoyed it as much as I did, and I think it’s a great insight into American culture as well as an inspiring journey of a woman who acknowledges her privilege yet emphasizes the value of hard work and humility. Also, she speaks so kindly and respectfully of the Bushes and how they helped usher her and her husband into the White House and their new roles as President and First Lady. If you’d like to see one political party speak kindly of the other (all shade intended), try this book out.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does include the three books I loved the most. Looking back, I see that they were all by black female writers. I’m pleased to see that I have expanded my experience as a reader, and perhaps I have met – or attempted – the goal Professor Himelstein set for me. Here are some of the books on my list for 2019, in no particular order:

Image result for girl wash your faceImage result for the poisonwood bible kingsolverImage result for little fires everywhereImage result for exit west bookImage result for the last love song a biography of joan didion

  • Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis I am reading this book now and loving it. My sister-in-law recommended it to me when she heard about the journey for self-care that I am now dedicating my time to. Hollis is concise, honest, and relatable, and I’ve enjoyed what I have read so far.
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverI’ve read and enjoyed some of her novels, and my niece Lauren keeps mentioning this book. It also comes up in many discussions I’ve had with other AP Literature teachers.
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – This is a book I know little about, but I keep seeing on reading lists. In an effort to keep up with the times, I’m moving it higher on my to-read list. Also, while linking this book to this post, I saw that it is being made into a series on Hulu, starring my girl Kerry Washington.
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – Another book about which I know little, but one I see often on the Internet. Also, Mohsin Hamid is Pakistani. I teach several students from Pakistan, and I have read nothing by a Pakistani writer. I would love to know more about Pakistan and have a book to recommend to my students who call Pakistan home.
  • The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty. Joan Didion is the single greatest influence on my writing, and the reason why I chose non-fiction as my genre of choice. I love her and everything about her. My mom gave me this book last year or the year before, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. I see it often, but I think I am afraid to open it because Didion is now 84 years old, and I can’t imagine a world without her in it. I’m not sure what that has to do with the fact that I haven’t picked up her biography, but I am sure it means something in my subconscious.So farewell to last year’s words, and welcome to this year’s voices. What are you reading in 2019?

1 Comment

  1. Love this! May have to read little fires everywhere along with you! I also feel honored that my recommendation is toward the top of your list lol! 😊

    Like

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