25 years. 25 books (and think-pieces)

This was going to be a list of the books that I have read over the course of my life that have, for one reason or another, stayed with me. Midway through, I decided to expand it to include forms of writing that weren’t solely books. For one, I haven’t read as much for pleasure as I’d liked to in the last year — grad school is overwhelming, who would’ve thunk?

More importantly, when I confronted the written words that have shaped who I am today, I realised that so many essays had played a role. They drew me in and shed light on the people I‘ll never meet and lives I’ll never lead, yet I wanted to learn about and empathise with. These written words brought me closer to understanding the human condition and the lives we all lead individually but also together.

The act of making this list was inspired by one of my favourite writers, Roxane Gay, who makes one every year. Her thoughtful lists make me want to be a more intentional reader. They have also made me reconsider what writing means — writing as an act a reader does. Having a father who is also a writer, and having plenty of arguments with him about writing (and how I don’t do it), a myth I’ve been trying to dispel is that one must love to write to write for a living.

I hope the next twenty-five years are full of books that continue to challenge me, make me think, shape me, break me and rebuild me. I hope that in the next twenty-five years I also learn to stop hating the act of writing, and instead become comfortable in my discomfort — and moreover, become comfortable with the act of sharing my thoughts and ideas in written form but also in other nonverbal media. A small goal, as you can see. Here are my top 25 favourite works of writing of my last 25 years.

A book I have and will continue to read (almost) every year: Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

It’s a cliché now. Some people read Moby Dick every year, or is it Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to learn something new about the book, or themselves. Upon first read, it’s magical and fantastical. Something my father read to us growing up with one of his favourite poems, Jabberwocky. As I’ve grown up, the book has revealed itself to me as deeply sad. A sort of Stockholm Syndrome or Hotel California for the residents of Wonderland. Whoever said that the Walrus & The Carpenter was a funny poem didn’t read all the way through and realised that the two were selfish and ruthless, eating all of their “friends” in their stead.

A decadent book: Open City, Teju Cole

There are so many other ways I would describe this book but I call it decadent here because I remember so clearly the time I was reading this and telling someone about it. I said the book reminded me of chocolate because it lingered with you. The book took on a completely different role when I moved to New York, reading about spaces that I’ve lingered in and loitered around. The book takes up almost no space just the way you feel when you’re in the city, like you are alone but accompanied by millions of people.

A book that served as an unlikely place to meet and get to know my Dada: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

Throughout my speaking, thinking life with my grandfather, he recommended this book to me. I always found it odd; my grandfather had hundreds of books in his house and numerous favourite poems that he never prodded me to read. Yet it was this Betty Smith book, and for a short while Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, that he constantly pointed to. After he passed away in June 2015, I finally read it. An inviting read about a young Irish immigrant in the late 19th century in Brooklyn, it took me by surprise that my grandfather would hail above all else a book about a young immigrant in the United States. Today, this book serves as a reminder that we have far more in common between us than we think and that we mustn’t solely rely on narratives closest to us or limit our level of empathy to the obvious or the immediate. A reminder that we all need today.

A book that served as a mirror: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, and Civilizations and Their Discontents, Mohsin Hamid

I’ll keep this brief: go read these two books. Americanah is about being African in America and distinguishing that identity from being African-American, but goes into so much more about diasporic identity and love. Also, I mean let’s be honest, Chimamanda can do no wrong. Hamid’s book is a collection of essays he has written in the pre and post-9/11 world about living between London, New York City, and Lahore, and what love does to a nomadic identity. Warning: you’ll finish both books with more questions than answers.

Books that have made cry and laugh often at the same time: The Stranger, Albert Camus, Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling and White Teeth, Zadie Smith

A book that reminds me that history, politics, social change and more, they all start with people: Letters From a Father to His Daughter, Jawaharlal Nehru, My Life On The Road, Gloria Steinem

A book that I recommended (and loaned out, something I never do): The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla, and The Mothers, Britt Bennett

The Good Immigrant started out as a crowdfunded project and became a movement of Shukla publishing BAME writers including the brilliant Bim Adewunmi, Musa Okwonga, and Riz Ahmed on being a minority in Britain. For anyone who thinks they’ve read enough PoC narratives from the West but in actuality has only read North American perspectives, this is worth the read. (Just learned that there will be a USA collection coming out in 2019.)

Bennett’s The Mothers is just excellent, I don’t want to give it away. Trust me.

An article that allowed me to see through my dad’s eyes

Sometimes your parents don’t tell you what they’ve seen or done or continue to do for a living. No he’s not a spy. This is an example of where I had to read about my dad’s life, and what a collection of words to read.

An article that reminds me that we need to centre people’s stories in our policy work. What a story, and what bravery to be interviewed anonymously and then be driven to activism to advocate for other women. This didn’t happen to me but I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

An article that came out recently but is about so much more than just a review of a movie

Save this movie and article for when you have a Sunday where you can cry all day. And then after you’re done crying, call your family.

A book that I didn’t finish because I wasn’t smart enough to read it at the time: Changing my mind: Essays, Zadie Smith

I feel this way about most Zadie Smith books. “I just don’t get it!!!” She uses these long serpentine sentences to convey either everything or nothing in a line. I met her once and she asked me what I did for a living, and at the time I responded “I work in politics.” She gave me such a worried look, a look that spoke to the nature of the work but also conveyed a sense of worry about my livelihood, rightfully so perhaps.

I haven’t finished this book yet and so I guess I’m cheating a little bit, but I know I’m going to read it soon and if you’re reading this, I hope you do too. The book is a collection of essays where Zadie explores the ways in which she’s changed her mind. She shares opinions she’s had that have progressed and why they have. I hope that you instead take some time to read some of her shorter pieces because they’re beautiful. Some short essays by Zadie: On Age, on food, on New York.

A book of essays, some you’ll agree with, some you won’t, all will make you think: Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

Maybe I liked this because I read it in Montréal where everything is one million times better, or because Greene’s pensive moodiness was me in 2014: The Quiet American, Graham Greene

A book you have to read because it will come up at almost every party from now on: South of the Border, West of the Sun (or anything really) by Haruki Murakami

Books everyone loved but I thought was simplistic and tried: Exit West, Mohsin Hamid and The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin it. I think it captured the concept of love and growing in and out of it well, but Hamid is often overwrought. Read Moth Smoke though, a good one.

With Lahiri, I don’t know where to begin but to say that immigrant narratives are not monolithic and maybe I reject this book and others like it because I want to challenge fans of the book to think outside of the tried and tested immigrant narrative. This isn’t my story but that doesn’t mean it isn’t someone’s.

Books that make me miss home: Chasing The Monsoon, Alexander Frater, anything by Agatha Christie

Cheating here again a little bit but if you haven’t read Chasing the Monsoon, I highly recommend it over anything Google is going to tell you to read about the city of Bombay and India generally. Agatha Christie, the constant in my life. Almost all of the books in this list make me feel comfort akin to a home but Christie is the author that my dad has mentioned much more than any other. She is feisty and crazy and outdated, but a guilty pleasure I’m not too guilty of.

A book that made me feel seen when I was gifted it: Marxism and Art, Maynard Solomon

Torontonian from Bombay in Brooklyn. Digital rights, immigration, and the Census. Read me on aunties: https://medium.com/@digitaljusticelab/not-like-the-aunties