Saturday, February 11, 2017

Politics Creating Family Tension? I Suggest Forming A Book Club

by Michelle M. Johnson

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about a long-distance book club I was forming with my mother in hopes of healing the emotional distance that had come between us in the aftermath of the 2016 United States Presidential election (click here to read the original post). Because of the response that I received to that post in the comments section of my blog, online in social media and in private messages, I felt like a follow-up on how the club was progressing was in order. Here goes:)

To begin with, I don't know that there could have been a better book for me to have chosen for this project than Nicola Yoon's The Sun Is Also A Star.

I just love this cover:)
This book eloquently takes a close look at race, racism, immigration, family, personal history's effects on personal choice, what it means to be an American, and where love and personal responsibility fit into all of these areas, and it does this all through the lens of a single day in the life of two very disparate teenagers who live in New York City. I'm not a fan of giving away too much plot detail in book reviews, so that synopsis is all you're going to get from me. Given how our current administration has begun their four years in the White House, I feel strongly that this book should be required reading for, well, everybody.

The book is barely 300 pages, so my mother and I agreed to split the reading up into 100 pages a week for three weeks. We settled in for our book club meetings on Sunday afternoons, and these took place via phone, usually lasting close to 2 hours, much longer than our typical phone conversations. After our very first meeting, I knew that I had struck upon an idea we both were going to enjoy and learn from. My mother, who typically reads genre fiction and, more often than not, mysteries, seemed to have her imagination turned on by the structure of this book, which bounces between the two main characters, Daniel and Natasha, but also dabbles for brief moments into the consciousnesses of peripheral characters that just happen to be in the right (or wrong) place at the wrong (or right) time in these teenagers' lives. I was worried that the structure would seem odd and confusing to my mom, but instead it brought up all these memories my mother had of her childhood growing up in a mining town, a town that was incredibly racially and socially segregated. And, she shared these memories with me freely for most of our first meeting. I listened with an open and eager heart about her life and the lives of my grandparents in this town, how they moved through this society, how it affected them. When she started to draw parallels between her life and the book we were reading, well, I can't tell you how happy this made me. I love to talk about books and how they apply or don't apply to our lives; that I got to do this with my mother was a dream come true.

As our reading went along, I think we both began to look forward to our Sunday afternoon book club chats (and as a person who LOATHES being on that phone, that is saying a lot about how much this project meant to me). During our second club meeting my mom revealed to me that she had shared with her friends our little experiment, and she asked "Michelle, is this a children's book?" This question gave me a lovely opportunity to explain to my mom about the Young Adult phenomenon in publishing, which then led us to chat about authors, genres, taboo topics, and the misconceptions of many adults about the publishing industry and the place of libraries in contemporary society. Needless to say, it was an awesome conversation. At the end of our second club meeting, we made our predictions about how the book was going to end. I do not want to share those sentiments with readers here as they reveal too much about the book. But, what I will say is that my mother was very adamant that she new exactly how the book had to end. I, on the other hand, had no idea where the author was going to lead us (a place I like being in when I am 100 pages out from the end, a place that makes me feel like an author is worth the pages their words are written on). I found that extreme difference in our readings truly fascinating and wondered if it would have an impact on how we read the last 100 pages of the book.

Our third and final club meeting on The Sun Is Also A Star probably yielded our most tense and honest conversations of the entire process. And, I think that had more to do with the events that transpired in our country during that week than it had to do with us as readers. This book isn't ONLY about immigration in the United States, but you take out the subject of immigration in the U.S. and what you're left with is no story; NOT talking about the stance of our new administration on immigration just wasn't an option for our club meeting IF we were to actually continue engaging with the book as we had done the previous two meetings. And, this was the moment when I decided that books are magic as I know truly that there is no way I would have brought up the topic of immigration to my mother on purpose post election 2016 were it not for the fact that we were reading this book together, and I know for a fact that my mother would not have engaged with me as deeply as she did on this issue were it not for the fact that we both had decided that we wanted to be in a book club together. That is all I am going to say about the end of this beautiful book because I want as many people as possible to read this novel and experience it fresh for themselves - spoilers are evil.

When I decided to send my mother a book that I knew next to nothing about a month ago for her birthday, I had zero expectations that the flow of communication and ideas between the two of us would improve. In fact, if I'm honest, I anticipated that maybe things might get even worse between us, as I knew our current administration intended to lead our country down a dark path, one that was going dig an even greater divide between "conservatives" and "liberals", whatever those two words even mean because, as Inigo Montoya said to Vizzini:

I couldn't resist a meme of The Princess Bride.
#SorryNotSorry
So, I am incredibly pleased to report that giving my mother and I something to talk about other than politics did in fact lead us to have better, healthier, and more productive conversations about politics, conversations where we were actually communicating, actually listening to each other. Are we saving the world by being a part of a book club for two? Of course not. But, are we making our own worlds a little better by being a little better to each other during this time in our lives? Most definitely, and I think that will make us both better citizens of our unique and beautiful county. I was especially glad to hear that there was a quite a long list of her friends waiting to borrow her copy of The Sun Is Also A Star. Maybe our ability to engage in intelligent and mature conversation about the tough issues our country is facing will spread. I'm an idealist, so I need to believe that it will.

I asked my mom if she wanted to continue our long distance book club now that we had finished reading Nicola Yoon's book. She didn't even hesitate for a moment to answer, "yes." I have been wanting to read When Breath Becomes Air  by Paul Kalanithi ever since I read a moving review of the book when it was first published, so I think this will be our next selection for our long-distance book club. I have been afraid to read this book up to this point as I thought it would be too emotionally difficult to undertake alone; thanks to my mom, I don't have to.

I come by my bookworm-i-ness naturally:)



2 comments:

  1. Reading this made me very happy, Michelle. I share your disdain for spoilers, by the way.

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    1. :) I couldn't have hoped for a better outcome from this reading adventure! I'm glad it brightened your day. On a side note: I have shared my blog directly with my mother, and she was proud of what I wrote & told me to "keep up the good work." Thank you for reading my post and sharing your thoughts, Gail:)

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