Ileke Favorites: 10 Favorite Books
Reading has always been a great escape for me. It's a way I've learned about the world and helps me see things from many perspectives. I've learned about different cultures, gained a better understanding of concepts, people, and myself from being a voracious reader. I like to think that I am open-minded and deeply empathetic and I believe that reading has helped me develop these qualities.
These books all happen to be focused on women's stories, all but one are written by women, and most are by women of color authors. Many of these stories also happen to deal with sexual abuse and sexual violence against women, because unfortunately worldwide that is a reality for many women and girls. We live in a world where where women, especially women of color, are undervalued and rape culture is accepted as normal. The women in these books however are not victims and do not let what has happened to them define who they are. These are stories of resistance and these women had to unlearn the damaging messages that negatively impacted their lives. Ultimately they use their pain and trauma as a means of deeper growth.
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou- What I respect the most about Maya Angelou is that she was always clear that the immense wisdom she possessed came from knowing and learning from all she suffered. She constantly spoke of the importance of respecting, being forgiving, kind and loving not only to others but to yourself. She never pretended to be something she was not and used her own life and experiences to help other people know that no one is perfect, and we're all doing the best we can until we can do better. I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school and I've read it twice since then. The coming-of-age story is about Angelou's early life, (ages 3-16) and deals with themes such as racism, identity, dealing with neglect, rape and trauma, and how love and support leads to healing. What I love the most about this book is how Angelou found her voice, both figuratively and literally (she was selectively mute for 7 years following her rape). I appreciate her emphasis on using one's voice and the power that words have to both destroy and heal.
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison- This book means a lot to me, so much so that while I was studying English at Michigan State University I wrote my senior thesis on it. The Bluest Eye is about Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl living in Lorain, Ohio and the year she spends as a temporary foster child of the MacTeeer family. Pecola moves in with the MacTeers after her "crazy" father burns the family's house down. Claudia MacTeer is the is the narrator of the novel and details how an entire community comes together projecting all their insecurities, the pain of internalized racism unto the body of a young black girl. The name of the novel comes from Pecola's desire to have blue eyes. It deals heavily with whiteness as the standard of beauty and how damaging this is to people of color. Throughout the novel we're told that Pecola and the Breedlove family are "ugly", though it is never clear if this is actually manifested physically, or if it has to do with how poor and black they are. This is another novel that deals heavily with rape, sexual abuse and the exploitation of the black female body. It's a powerful novel that stays with the reader long after its been read.
- Kindred by Octavia E. Butler- Octavia Butler was a science fiction writer and Kindred is a novel with a fascinating take on the science fiction trope of time travel, because it also incorporates elements of a slave narrative. The novel is first set in 1976 Los Angeles on the day of main character and narrator Dana's 26th birthday. Dana and her husband Kevin are moving into a new home and while unpacking she suddenly becomes dizzy and loses consciousness. When she comes to and gains her senses she observes that she has been transported to the edge of some unfamiliar woods just in time to see a small red-headed boy drowning in a nearby river. Readers soon find out the connection that Dana has to the small boy and that she has been transported back to the antebellum era South. The book explores how modern day knowledge and technology is no buffer of safety in a society where people's humanity and worth is based upon their skin color. It also shows how easily people accept and take on the roles of both oppressor and oppressed.
- Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue- Like most children of the 90s, I grew up during Disney's Golden Age. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas were all in heavy rotation on my family's VHS player. I also loved being read fairytales as bed time stories. As I got older I still loved reading fairytales and would always look for ones that told the familiar stories with a twist. Kissing the Witch was assigned reading for a women's literature class I took in college and I instantly was hooked. It contains thirteen re-imagined fairytales (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc), in which women help, love and support other women. The princes are usually the source of conflict. The stories stress the importance of relying on oneself and rethinking and unlearning what society dictates should be your hopes and desires.
- Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, & So Much More by Janet Mock- I think I've always felt that even though I've never experienced the struggles or dealt with issues that people in the LGBGTQ community have to deal with, I could at least appreciate that choosing to be your authentic self in a world that shuns and oftentimes tries to destroy what's not considered "normal", can be a challenge. Reading this memoir really put into perspective for me that you're never done learning or deepening your understanding. Mock's honesty and ability to let readers into her personal journey of defining herself as a woman is incredibly compelling and powerful. We all have unique qualities that are stamped out by society so even for readers who are cisgender, Mock's coming of age story is relatable.
- Feasts of Phantoms by Kehinde Adeola Ayeni- You might think I'm a bit biased because this book was written by one of my favorite people, but it truly is one of the best novels I've read. It focuses on Iranti, a Nigerian physician who specializes in reconstructive genital surgery to repair complications from female genital mutilation. Iranti suffered her own devastating complications from FGM, a procedure her well-meaning grandmother forced her to undergo as a young girl out of ignorance and fear. Feasts of Phantoms deals with the consequences of generational trauma. It discusses how in many cultures being born female means being susceptible to future sexual assault and violence, a horror which compels mothers and grandmothers to force these deeply traumatizing and dangerous procedures to be performed on their daughters. What also makes this story so compelling is the difficult, internal work that Iranti does on the brink of becoming a mother herself. My biggest takeaway from this novel is that becoming an adult means learning to forgive your parents and seeing them as flawed people who did their best to protect and care for you. It's also never too late to start woking towards the path of healing and self acceptance.
- Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur- The first woman to be on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist List, Assata Shakur is both an activist and revolutionary. This autobiography helped expand my mind in terms of thinking about the United States and its relationship with terrorism. How do we define terror and who do we label as terrorist? How much of a threat could one woman pose? The autobiography starts with Shakur handcuffed to her hospital bed, close to death and guarded by federal police, following a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike which left a white state trooper dead. Shakur then takes us through her life story and recounts the events both leading up to the event and the aftermath. She discusses everything from racism, sexism, the need for prison reform, white supremacy, police brutality, civil rights organizations and how flawed the justice system can be. Shakur also takes us through the development of her own cultural identity, which was a difficult process in a country that disregards and criminalizes its black and brown citizens.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- Americanah is Adichie's third novel and a humorous story about love and cultural identity, spanning three continents. The novel focuses on Ifemelu and Obinze who first meet in secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria and immediately fall in love. Like many young people in the country which is dealing with a military dictatorship, they decide to leave to go study abroad. Ifemelu goes to the United States and discovers what it means to be black for the first time in her life. This sparks the creation of her hilarious and clever race blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”. Obinze however is unable to obtain a visa to the U.S. following 9/11 so he moves to London and lives and works as an undocumented worker. Fifteen years later both are back in Nigeria, but their reunion isn't the simple, happy occasion it should be. What I appreciate most about this book is how it addresses the struggle of being a Black American who isn't African-American. I can relate to the tension and struggle of being not American enough for Americans, but also not Nigerian enough for Nigerians, and how this had lead to the formation of my own culture identity.
- Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés- Estés is a Jungian psychoanalyst who uses multicultural myths, folktales and fairytales as ways to help women reclaim and reconnect with the instinctual nature of woman or the "wild woman" within. This wild woman represents the powerful force that is filled with meaning, joy, good instincts, and passionate creativity. However due to pressures and expectations many women lock away this force so they can better fit into the expectations of being a good wife, mother, or woman in the way society dictates a woman should be. This book is similar to Kissing the Witch in the use of fairytales, except Estés uses the familiar stories and storytelling as entry points to further discuss analytic concepts and ideas.
- She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb- One of the most amazing aspects of this book for me is that it is written by a man, but he is able to perfectly capture a woman's voice. Dolores Price is literally coming undone. At forty her life isn't close to where she thought it should be and much of the idealized picture she holds comes from her long obsession with television and the perfect images it projects. This book follows her life from age 4, when her father leaves her and her mother for another woman, to age 40 when she's in a relationship with a good man but yearning and struggling to become a mother. She has to deal with her traumatic past. During her adolescence, her mother is hospitalized for mental illness forcing Dolores to live with a cold and distant grandmother. Her grandmother's neglect leaves her vulnerable to be preyed upon by a charming neighbor. Throughout the novel Dolores works hard to put herself together and she does so with a lot of courage and humor.
Have you read any of the books on this list? What are some of your favorite books and why? What are some books that have had a meaningful and lasting impact on you? As always I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!
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