As a teenager I spent many afternoons browsing the library. I would often take home a stack of novels, all chosen based on their intriguing front covers and the few sentences I read from their synopsis on their back covers. After a few days of non-stop reading (this was before the days of binge-watching the latest Netflix original series) I would return my stack in exchange for another. Books have introduced me to worlds and views far outside my own, disrupting my neat and comfortable little reality. These four books are the current agents of this disruption. Note: If you click on their covers, you can view them in Amazon :)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I have a habit of forgetting to read a book’s synopsis before cracking it open and becoming engulfed in its characters and plots. This is a dangerous habit. I tend to fall hard and fast for these characters, and therefore I am easily devastated when, for example, their lives are upended and ravaged by a massacre and ensuing civil war.
I have to be honest; I knew nothing about the Biafran war, a two and half year long civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s which decimated its southern population, made up, largely, of the Igbo people. The military casualties totaled around 100 000, but it is estimated that between 500 000 and 2 000 000 people died of starvation because of the war.
The novel, based on the Biafran war, centers around a protagonist by the name of Olanna, her beau Odenigbo, her sister Kainene (and her man Richard), and Odenigbos houseboy, Ugwu. In it’s first few chapters, Half of a Yellow Sun establishes Olanna and Odenigbo’s infatuation turned love story, as they deal with drama brought on by their respective families and face the normal, everyday challenges of romantic relationships. Odenigbo is a professor whose home is often filled with colleagues and peers, passionately debating political topics that impact post-colonial Nigeria, over beers and spirits.
As someone who didn’t read the back cover, so to speak, I thought the book’s main conflicts would be the infidelity of Odenigbo and the rivalry between Olanna and Kainene. When Olanna finds herself on a urine lined train sitting next to a woman who held her daughters severed head in a basket, this after escaping the mobs that hunted and massacred all of the Igbo people they could find in the city (including Olanna’s extended family), the Nigerian political landscape ignites into war. Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, and Odenigbo’s infant daughter, are driven from their home and forced to live in ever worsening conditions as the Nigerian government cuts off supplies to the Biafrans, a name chosen by the southern peoples whose secession sparked the war.
Richard makes it his mission to record the events of the war, as a writer from London who sought to complete a book long before the war’s beginning. His writing morphs and evolves as he writes and rewrites his manuscript, and he seems eternally dissatisfied with any title. But, in the end, Ugwu is revealed to be a master historian, poet, and writer, as Richard comes to realize that the stories of Biafra are not his to tell. Ugwu, of course, knew this all along.
Books have always expanded my world and Chimamanda’s Ngozi Adichie’s masterpiece expanded it across an ocean.
Willow Weep For Me by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Meri’s experiences echo my own in many respects. As she struggles to drag herself out of bed, to work, even failing to complete projects at home, to communicate with her family, and to accept medication and psychiatric help, I understand the internal turmoil that makes it all so impossible. There are, however, experiences that I cannot comprehend. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman of colour, an immigrant, and a mother, and have depression.
I appreciate Meri’s candor and wit. I am thankful that she has shared her story because I know the comforting power of a shared story. Just as I have found comfort in the words of those who’ve shared similar upbringings, those that write about streets I’ve walked along and coffee shops I’ve enjoyed, I know that the more diverse the collection of stories we have, hopefully, the more individuals will find hope for healing and strength to remain resilient in their mental health crises and struggles.
The finesse in her writing makes her study of literature and her passion for poetry evident. Her prose is speckled with the melody of a poet. Well written and deeply vulnerable, Willow Weep for Me is a wonderful resource for all of us, and a true comfort for those of us who have faced down an ever-growing, bleak pit of depression. At one point, in response to a metaphor naming depression as black and dark, Meri asks, "What colour is my depression?" to which I realized that I had never thought to ask how mental illness would be experienced differently for people of colour. I mean, of course it would be different, but in order for that reality to continue collide with our own reality, we need storytellers like Meri Nana-Ama Danquah to share.
The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright
Before picking up this book, be prepared to chuck those over-romanticized fantasies you have about Christian missions. Jamie Wright, in her honest and, at times, painfully embarrassing memoir shamelessly shares her experiences as a missionary in Costa Rica. You’ll laugh, you might cry and you might just end up rethinking your life’s purpose. If you are unfamiliar with her blog, title "The Very Worst Missionary", you may be unsure of what to expect from Jamie's memoir. Fair warning; she's not afraid of curse words, of vulnerability, or of speaking the truth about the billion dollar, Christian missions industry.
Jamie, her husband and their three sons spent five years in Costa Rica as missionaries. Jamie admits that the only soul she saved in these five years was an asshole cat, and there is just something endearing about that. I can relate to that. I have an asshole cat, adopted from a pet shelter, who decides that the middle of the night is the perfect time to exercise and hunt unassuming moths and flies. All this is to say that I appreciate Jamie taking an honest look at the "God-ordained" work that often makes people in projects to be saved, which unsurprisingly has not-so-great results. I, myself, would rather save asshole cats and leave the supposed people-saving to God.
I do have one major criticism, and that is that Jamie didn't narrated her words herself for the audiobook and given the personal nature of a memoir, this would have been a bonus, in my opinion.
Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
Veteran memoirist Rachel Held Evans takes a swing at biblical interpretation in her fourth (?) book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again, and I am so very grateful. I am not the only one hungry for new perspectives and the space and grace needed to explore the questions that have jostled my faith. For many, Inspired is hope for returning to the beloved stories of our childhood, despite the more recent beatings we've received from well-intention Bible enthusiasts. It is like dipping a toe back in the water after nearly drowning, like trying to find the courage to wade in while trembling from the trauma. I found Rachel's words to be a salve, soothing my own bitter heart enough, almost, to be inclined to return to the Bible with renewed faith in it's magic.
Rachel retells a handful of classic Bible stories, imagining the thoughts of our favourite Bible heros. My personal favourite retelling was from the perspective of Hagar, the slave impregnated by Abraham per Sarah's command. These retellings are insightful as hell, and it is clear that their stories have been well researched. Rachel has done the work, delving into biblical scholarship to create a book that may just rekindle your love affair with scripture.
This book actually makes me want to join a Bible study. Seriously, I'm down. Slide into my DMs if you want in. Hell, I'll even get the free study guide, and yes, there will be wine at our Bible study.