We’ve all read books that have impacted us, that have stayed with us and helped shape our understanding of the world. Last year, I was invited to give a talk at an independent girls’ school about literature that has done so for me. I’ve read so many books that at first I thought it would be an almost impossible task, but when I thought about it, I realised that at each stage of my life and education I’ve come across a book that has introduced me to or educated me on significant socio-political issues that have shaped my beliefs and influenced who I am today.
These books have, in some ways, led to me leading protests, creating my blog and doing all the other work I partake in today. If you haven’t already, add them to your TBR list!
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – Mildred D. Taylor
Written in 1976, this novel is the second in a series of novels focusing on the Logan family. Set in the Deep South during the Great Depression, the Logans work hard to keep the small piece of land they own, while navigating a plethora of racial injustices and abuses. The story is narrated by Cassie Logan, the second-oldest of the four Logan children and who is nine when the novel opens. As a young child she is initially (and understandably) naïve to racism and its machinations, and as readers we journey with her as her eyes are opened to it.
I was about the same age as Cassie when I first read this novel, and I too had no real understanding of US history or its violent racism. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the subsequent novels – most notably, The Land – introduced me to racism in the United States: Jim Crow, the KKK, lynchings, and white privilege. I was impacted not only by what African-Americans had to suffer through, but how they survived, how they rebelled, and how they learned to balance the two. Over the course of the novel the Logan family engage in acts of defiance and disobedience to defend themselves and protect what is theirs, and through them we learn the importance of when and how best to fight to survive. These are lessons that Cassie must learn too – when Lillian Jean’s father twists Cassie’s arm and throws her into the road for bumping into his daughter and refusing to get into the road and apologise, Cassie is humiliated when her grandmother forces her to apologise. But over time, Cassie makes “peace” with Lillian Jean, calls her “Miz Lillian Jean” and carries her books, until the girl begins to trust her, after which time Cassie lures her into the woods and beats her. Lillian Jean is forced to apologise for all the humiliation she’s caused Cassie, and Cassie threatens to tell all her secrets if she tells anyone what happened. I have to admit, that bit was satisfying to read.
As a YA novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a real eye-opener. The plot is dramatic, yet wholly realistic, and the ending is bittersweet. It is no surprise then that some US schools tried to “challenge” it!
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
How many of us have read Jane Eyre because it’s a “classic?” Yep, me too – it was on my syllabus in my first year of university. Remember Bertha, the “mad” woman in the attic from the Caribbean? The one that Rochester just did not give a toss about? Yes?
Well, Wide Sargasso Sea is about her. Jean Rhys felt that Antoinette (as she is more elegantly named in the novel) deserved to have her story told, that we as readers deserved to know how she ended up in the attic and what made her “mad.” Wide Sargasso Sea therefore serves as the unofficial prequel to Jane Eyre, and is a feminist and postcolonial response to it.
I read this novel when I was in Year 11 at school in Jamaica. It was one of my CSEC (GCSE-equivalent) English Literature exam texts. I also studied Caribbean history as one of my options subjects, so I was well aware of the historical contexts of the novel: colonialism, the slave trade and its ending, racism and sexual exploitation of women. The novel then served as a fantastic augmentation of my wider studies, as it dealt with all those themes.
Growing up on a plantation as the daughter of white slave owners, Antoinette would have experienced much privilege in her life prior to the novel’s opening. But she and her mother both find themselves being ‘othered’ by the white English men they end up marrying – their European descent does not matter, they are Creole and inferior as far as their husbands are concerned. Both women are silenced, betrayed and ultimately rejected by their husbands, which leads to their “madness.” Rhys deftly explores the correlation between race, class and gender and how they are weaponised in order to uphold white supremacist patriarchy. By the time I read Jane Eyre at university, I looked at the novel slightly differently – my reading of Wide Sargasso Sea made me aware of how white women like Jane are complicit in upholding these systems and I felt nothing but empathy for “Bertha,” as opposed to viewing her as this deranged woman standing between Rochester and Jane. Although I didn’t have the language to describe it this way back then, reading this novel formed the foundation for my future understanding of both feminist and postcolonial theory.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
As some of you may know, this novel is one of my biggest influences, and is the inspiration behind the name of this blog!
I studied The Color Purple for A Level English Literature, and I was lucky enough to hear Alice Walker speak at an event in London while I was studying it. The novel introduced me to the concept of womanism, which has shaped my beliefs and way of looking at the world today. The novel deals with domestic violence, patriarchy, racism and colourism to name a few. It is graphic and emotive, but it is also (in my view) a celebration of Black women and their individual and collective strengths.
The novel tells the story of Celie, a poor Black girl born into segregation and poverty, who begins writing letters to God as a coping mechanism for the abuses she faces. She is repeatedly raped and beaten by ‘Pa’ and gives birth to two children, both of whom are taken away from her. She is then forced to marry Mr – who continues the abuse, and is separated from her beloved sister Nettie. Through the course of the novel and her relationship with Mr’s mistress Shut Avery, Celie learns how to harness her own power and is able to free her spirit. This review doesn’t even begin to do the novel and its complexities justice – you truly just have to read it, and see for yourself why it appeared on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books between 200-2009!
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
As I write this, I am actually re-reading this novel.
I love Toni Morrison because not only does she weave complex narratives and characters that deal with so many serious themes, but she unapologetically wrote novels about Black people for Black people.
This novel tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, who suffers from internalised anti-Blackness and self-loathing, one of the dire consequences of white supremacy. She believes she is “ugly” and so she starts yearning for blue eyes, which she equates with whiteness and therefore “beauty.”
Even the narrator, Claudia, wonders in the novel what it is that makes adults go “Awww” over little white girls but not for her. Among other serious issues, in the novel Toni Morrison explores the way white girls are afforded the description of “beauty” and innocence, which is not extended to Black girls and the consequences on the psyche of Black girls as a result. This is one of the reasons the novel stayed with me – it examines the effects of racism that are not always considered.
Due to themes of racism, child molestation and incest, there have been a number of attempts to ban the novel from school libraries.
Small Island – Andrea Levy
This novel is important to me on a personal level, as it tells the story of the Windrush Generation: their arrival in Britain after the Second World War, how they had to adjust to life here and the racism they faced.
Many of the references made in the novel resonated with me, for example when it was ‘suggested’ that Black people step out of the way when they see a white person coming down the street. They reminded me of the stories my mother and uncle would tell me about what it was like for them growing up here in the 1960s and the overt and covert racism they faced. I am grateful to Andrea Levy for telling this story, so that my mother and her generation feel seen. The novel is especially poignant now in light of the disgraceful Windrush Scandal that I’ve written extensively about. It is important that people read these stories and recognise the contributions of the Windrush Generation.
So that’s it! I hope reading this has given you a bit of an understanding of my influences and the perspectives I take when I write about the topics I do. And I hope it gives you an idea of the types of novels I like to read!
What texts have stayed with you over the years? Comment below and/or follow me on Instagram (@purplebookclub) to let me know!