For a country intent on the loosest possible definitions of free speech, one of our most marginalized populations is subject to an insidious degree of censorship.
The United States—the world leader in incarceration, imprisoning 2.2 million at this very moment—is fixated on free speech, but we favor the adjective over the verb. Prisons throughout the country are banning books that disagree with the racial disparity in U.S. prisons, the prison-industrial complex, and other incisive critiques of mass incarceration. And some are banning books altogether: one Georgia jail recently imposed a ban on all books, excluding only religious texts. Louisiana has banned non-Christian religious material, a decision that evidently violates the Constitutional provisions for religious freedom. Even the more liberal state of Washington forbade outsiders to make charitable book donations to prisons. Although the Washington Department of Corrections has rolled back the ban to accept donations from a small, specified list of charities, this compromise hardly changes the fact that WDOC only changed the rule because it couldn’t get away with it.
Recently, the Arizona Department of Corrections has banned Chokehold, a non-fiction work exploring the role of race within the criminal justice system. Written by a former prosecutor, the book dispenses advice for black men and details the rights people can use to protect themselves (for example, during searches). While this may be unjust, it’s not unprecedented: North Carolina and Florida have banned The New Jim Crow, another book dedicated to exposing racism’s inextricable link to mass incarceration.
This past week, the American Civil Liberties Union formally addressed the issue, requesting that Arizona overturn this ban. An excerpt from the letter explains the hypocrisy inherent in the ban:
The very people who experience extreme racial disparity in incarceration cannot be prohibited from reading a book whose purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity. Improving understanding of policing, incarceration, and racial bias is especially critical given Arizona’s stark racial disparities and overall high rates of incarceration.
Advocates have pointed out the practical issues with these bans, those that transcend moral or ethical arguments. There is no budgetary component to book-donation charities, meaning that there are no financial consequences for allowing these charities to stock prison libraries. It’s also likely that incarcerated people will not spend their entire lives in prison. Given that the average prison sentence is three years, state departments of correction should assume that most of these people will return to society. Shouldn’t we want them to be emotionally healthy when they do? Shouldn’t we want them to be educated?
Under the First Amendment, only books which would actively endanger the prison or the people in it are eligible for bans. This clause would, for example, bar a non-fiction work that might detail how to make explosives or weaponry. The intent is purely physical rather than psychological; ostensibly, there is no danger to society in allowing prisoners to understand the judicial system that keeps them confined. But there is a danger to the system that imprisons them.
Each week, Bookstr scans bestseller lists across the Internet to learn what people are reading, buying, gifting, and talking about most — just so we can ensure consistent, high-quality recommendations. This week's nonfiction picks range from the origins of humanity to the fine print of computer programming. Looking for a different genre? Check back next week for new picks, or send us your ideas and we'll do our best to curate hot titles.
It’s officially Spring, which means it should be warming up! Of course, Bookstr’s picks for the week are already pretty hot. Assuming you made it past that pun, why don’t you go ahead and keep reading… and then keep reading until you’re finished with each one of these recommendations. This week, each of our selections tells a story of transnational displacement—whether or not the cause is a vacation or something far more permanent. Two of these releases may be non-fiction, but they all have one thing in common: fiction or not, they’re rich with emotional truths and examination of cultural traditions.
And, speaking of tradition, here are Bookstr’s Three to Read, the three books we’ve picked for you to read this week!
Our Hot Pick
An unforgettable memoir about a young woman who tries to outrun loss, but eventually finds a way home.
Ayelet Tsabari was 21 years old the first time she left Tel Aviv with no plans to return. Restless after two turbulent mandatory years in the Israel Defense Forces, Tsabari longed to get away. It was not the never-ending conflict that drove her, but the grief that had shaken the foundations of her home. The loss of Tsabari’s beloved father in years past had left her alienated and exiled within her own large Yemeni family and at odds with her Mizrahi identity. By leaving, she would be free to reinvent herself and to rewrite her own story.
For nearly a decade, Tsabari travelled, through India, Europe, the US and Canada, as though her life might go stagnant without perpetual motion. She moved fast and often because—as in the Intifada—it was safer to keep going than to stand still. Soon the act of leaving—jobs, friends and relationships—came to feel most like home.
But a series of dramatic events forced Tsabari to examine her choices and her feelings of longing and displacement. By periodically returning to Israel, Tsabari began to examine her Jewish-Yemeni background and the Mizrahi identity she had once rejected, as well as unearthing a family history that had been untold for years. What she found resonated deeply with her own immigrant experience and struggles with new motherhood.
Beautifully written, frank and poignant, The Art of Leaving is a courageous coming-of-age story that reflects on identity and belonging and that explores themes of family and home—both inherited and chosen.
Canadian Writers Abroadput it best: “The Art of Leaving, Ayelet Tsabari’s much anticipated memoir, could easily have been called The Art of Living.” With raw, honest language, Tsabari takes readers through a life as enormous as the journey she has undergone. Tsabari’s search for home takes her across continents, into the arms of men and women, down into the depths of alcohol and drug abuse. Writing with inarguable power in her non-Native English, Tsabari analyzes the question of identity while delving deep into her own, closing in on how the idea of home becomes all the more complicated when your country of birth is in direct conflict with your ethnic identity. This is an intense portrait of a flawed self, not a self-help novel but a story that will inspire you with its scope and ultimate message: you are the home you search for. Named as one of LitHub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2019, The Art of Leaving is a life-changing read of a life forever altered.
OUR COFFEE SHOP READ
Nira Ghani has always dreamed of becoming a musician. Her Guyanese parents, however, have big plans for her to become a scientist or doctor. Nira’s grandmother and her best friend, Emily, are the only people who seem to truly understand her desire to establish an identity outside of the one imposed on Nira by her parents. When auditions for jazz band are announced, Nira realizes it’s now or never to convince her parents that she deserves a chance to pursue her passion.
As if fighting with her parents weren’t bad enough, Nira finds herself navigating a new friendship dynamic when her crush, Noah, and notorious mean-girl, McKenzie “Mac,” take a sudden interest in her and Emily, inserting themselves into the fold. So, too, does Nira’s much cooler (and very competitive) cousin Farah. Is she trying to wiggle her way into the new group to get closer to Noah? Is McKenzie trying to steal Emily’s attention away from her? As Farah and Noah grow closer and Emily begins to pull away, Nira’s trusted trumpet “George” remains her constant, offering her an escape from family and school drama.
But it isn’t until Nira takes a step back that she realizes she’s not the only one struggling to find her place in the world. As painful truths about her family are revealed, Nira learns to accept people for who they are and to open herself in ways she never thought possible.
A relatable and timely contemporary, coming-of age story, In the Key of Nira Ghani explores the social and cultural struggles of a teen in an immigrant household.
Natasha Deen‘s #OwnVoices novel depicts young adult life in an immigrant household, written by an author who is also from Guyana. But Deen’s knowledge extends far beyond her subject matter. With clever chapter titles like ‘Isolation Is an Organic Compound’ and ‘Baggage Comes With Reinforced Handles,’ it’s clear that she’s also a deeply insightful writer whose knack for language enchants readers from the first page. In the Key of Nira Ghani encapsulates the precarious balance between escaping the confines of tradition and honoring those traditions that make us who we are. The juxtaposition between the protagonist’s outsider feelings typical of adolescence with the more specific estrangement of being the only brown girl in her Canadian high school. Heartwarming, funny, and gorgeously written, In the Key of Nira Ghani is key to your March reading list.
oUR dARK hORSE
When Italian Renaissance professor Allison Levy takes up residency in the palazzo of her dreams—the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence—she finds herself consumed by the space and swept into the vortex of its history. She spends every waking moment in dusty Florentine libraries and exploring the palazzo’s myriad rooms seeking to uncover its secrets. As she unearths the stories of those who have lived behind its celebrated facade, she discovers that it has been witness to weddings, suicides, orgies and even a murder. Entwining Levy’s own experiences with the ghosts of the Palazzo Rucellai’s past, House of Secrets paints a scintillating portrait of a family, a palace, and one of the most iconic cities in the world.
Allison Levy is a fascinating researcher employed at Brown University, whose previous works investigate an impressive scope of Early Modern Italian and European culture: games, sexuality, masculinity, and widowhood. It’s a rare writer—and a rarer historian—capable of teaching the world something about Renaissance history no other has fully explored. Levy does so with intrigue and nuance, interweaving a captivating non-fiction with her own personal narrative. House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzomay be lively, but historian Leonard Barkan encourages us to ask the real questions: “dare one say sexy?” Given the common perception of historical, scholarly works, it seems hard to imagine the answer is yes. To that, we say: read it. Then, you won’t have to imagine.
Equal rights activists, artists, and married couple Gillie and Marc Schattner are bringing gender-balanced public art to global cities with their new initiative, “Statues for Equality,” which aims to introduce statues of living women to cities that favor statues of male figures (so, most cities). New York will be the first city to display 10 of the artist-couple’s statues, all of which will pay tribute to living women. Authors among these women will include renowned public figures Oprah Winfrey (author of What I Know for Sure) and Jane Goodall (author of In the Shadow of Man).
According to the couple’s website, fewer than 3% of public statues in New York depict women, and even fewer depict historical women who made or are making significant contributions to society—as opposed to children’s book characters. Writers, world leaders, researchers, and more will debut at 1285 Avenue of the Americas on August 26th, 2019.
Gillie and Marc are perhaps best known for their widely popular sculpture The Last Three, a massive work featuring three life-sized northern white rhinos stacked precariously on top of one another that was installed at Astor Place and which was intended to immortalize the three remaining northern white rhinos in the world. (Since the statue’s debut, the last male northern white rhino has died while two females are still alive; all three are depicted in the sculpture.) The statue is now located at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas. According to their website, Gillie and Marc have nicknamed themselves “the world’s most loving artists” due to their tendency to focus on humanitarian causes in their work.
In addition to Goodall and Winfrey, the summer installation will also feature Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, P!nk, Tererai Trent, Janet Mock, Tracy Dyson, Cheryl Strayed, and Gabby Douglas. You may recognize Harriet Tubman (St. Nicholas Avenue and West 122nd Street) and Joan of Arc (West 93rd Street in Riverside Park) as two of the existing five statues of historical women figures in the city—sculptures depicting fictional figures include Alice from Alice in Wonderlandand Fearless Girl.
There are no plans for the statues to remain permanently at 1285 Avenue of the Americas after the exhibition closes, but the team’s website emphasizes that Statues for Equality is a global initiative, and the sculptures will likely travel. Gillie and Marc will expand their initiative to other cities after the New York launch and are still accepting nominations from the public for future statues.
The winner of Australia’s most esteemed literary prize could not attend the ceremony.
Today, Kurdish Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani won the Victorian Prize for Literature for his book, No Friend But the Mountains. Composed one text message at a time from an offshore detention center in Papua New Guinea, the novel has won a $25,000 and $100,000 prize in a country that denied this author refuge and continues to detain him. One of Behrouz Boochani’s greatest achievements should highlight what many perceive as present-day Australia’s greatest shame.
IMAGE VIA SBS NEWS
The experimental format of Boochani’s book was not an artistic decision—it was a necessity. While seeking refuge in Australia, the author was detained on Manus Island, a notorious offshore detention facility. Since he feared for his safety and the safety of his work, he wrote his novel entirely over WhatsApp messenger—and over the course of five years. He was right to be afraid: during his time at the detention center, he witnessed suicide attempts, riots, and murders. His phone was taken twice. “Imagine if I had written this book on paper,” Boochani said, “I would definitely have lost it.”
IMAGE VIA BLANK GC
Boochani might have won a significant sum, but money was never his aim in writing the book. Instead, he sought to share his experience of immigration and detention:
My main aim has always been for the people in Australia and around the world to understand deeply how this system has tortured innocent people on Manus and Nauru in a systematic way for almost six years. I hope this award will bring more attention to our situation and create change.
Image Via MO MAgazine
Although the detention camps have been legally closed, their continued existence bodes ill for Australia as a nation and for the people still left inside. LGBT+ people particular have suffered in these camps: in Papua New Guinea, homosexuality is still a crime. Gay men in the immigration detention facility can face up to fourteen years in prison. Boochani describes the camps as “barbaric.”
Boochani may have written the book to spread awareness of these cruelties, but, he admits, there was also another reason. Writing helped him to keep his humanity, his identity, he said. Writing was the thing that allowed him to survive.