Nigerian-born author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, won the Best Women's Prize for Fiction in 2007 for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Now, thirteen years later, she has been voted by over 8,500 readers as the top winner amongst all of the twenty-five women to have received this prize over the past quarter century.
It is likely that, if you’re here, you have turned to stories and poetry for comfort during dark times (or any times). Mental Health Day is around the corner and, while you may already have your go-to validation lit, I’m going to go ahead and share some of my literary chicken broth. I will confess that every fiber of my will power was involved in keeping me from sticking exclusively to Maya Angelou quotes, because that woman’s wisdom could bring me back from the dead on my worst days. So, in addition to two of my favorite tía Maya quotes, I invite you to take in some of these hot-tea-and-a-thick-quilt thoughts and put them in your pocket for the next time you’ve lost faith in humanity or find yourself at a dodgy dead end. I give you no snark as of this point, only vulnerability because I believe in safe spaces.
- “Maybe the hardest part of my life is having the courage to try.” —Rachel Hollis, Party Girl
2. “I respect myself and insist upon it from everybody. And because I do it, I then respect everybody too.” —Maya Angelou
3. “You can’t write a script in your mind and then force yourself to follow it. You have to let yourself be.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
4. “Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.” —Neil Gaiman
5. “I think Destiny’s purpose is merely to shock us at moments into a state of awareness; those moments are milestones in between which we have to find our own way.” —Attia Hosain, Sunlight on a Broken Column
6. “We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges when life puts us to the test.” —Isabel Allende
7. “She uttered a quick prayer for him. Let him find balance and moderation in all things; let him listen to himself and not the noise of others.” —Balli Kaur Jaswal, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
8. “I know for sure that love saves me and that it is here to save us all.” —Maya Angelou
9. “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if only one remembers to turn on the light.” -Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Mental health is often about being seen, and seeing is one of the often unspoken powers of stories. Sure, we hear of readers opening a novel, bumping into a character, and saying “hey, that’s me!” But we seldom hear of that wise Grandma Literature who sits us down wherever we are in life, holds our attention, and says “See? That’s you. You’re not alone.” You’ve heard me say this before, so I’m going to say it again: Abuela has the answers.
Let’s not forget that book banning is, fundamentally, conversation banning. A book gets banned when someone with power deems it dangerous, and it is only deemed dangerous when the thoughts dripping through the pages threaten a comfortable yet questionable, well-enough-rooted institution. So, one of the most sensible ways of honoring forbidden literature is to continue the tradition of feeding uncomfortable yet necessary conversations, and partaking in them.
So, in celebration of Banned Books Week, I hereby give you a drop’s worth of some of the current thought leaders around the world—authors, activists, visionaries, and public officials— whose discourse is worth researching for anyone with even the mildest commitment to human evolution. Not all of them have written books, but plenty of them have, and all of them are serving the thoughts that banned books are made of.
- Nawal El Saadawi
An Egyptian writer, physician, and psychiatrist, Nawal El Saadawi has dedicated half a century to peeling back the layers of patriarchal thought, and advocating for women’s rights. She has honed in on the topic of female circumcision, but nowhere near stopped at that; her ceiling-shattering feminist rhetoric and refusal to conform to oppressive class and gender norms have gotten her exiled, censored, imprisoned, and pilloried throughout her life. Thoroughly self-educated and an extraordinary modern thinker, El Saadawi has written in almost every genre and has been published in at least thirteen languages. Her autobiography, A Daughter of Isis (not to be confused with ISIS), is a detailed account of her early life and involvement in social freedom struggles.
2. Hoda Katebi
A twenty-three-year-old advocate for education and an ethical revolution in the fashion industry, Hoda Katebi is one of the notable young activists that makes me proud to be a millennial. Officially labeled a “writer, community organizer, and creative educator” on her website, this Chicago-based Iranian-American is not only a major mouthpiece for garment workers’ rights, but also a fearless liberal voice in regards to modern Muslim identity, and against military regimes. She is astonishingly fashionable (a detail that is only relevant due to the fact that she works in fashion), so if you look through her Insta feed, you’re likely to gather outfit inspiration. Or, you could check out her book Tehran Street Style, a photographic compilation of some of the best dressed men and women in the political and fashion capital of Iran.
3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One of the modern queens of feminist and anti-racist literature, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a prodigious master of activism through storytelling, and it would seem she has become so intentionally. In her Ted talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” she discusses the power of stories in creating biases, ideas, and conceptions about people—racial and gender biases being no exception. Her feminist rhetoric is inclusive and intersectional, and her representations of the world so real, you can pick them up and pin them on your bulletin board next to your polaroids. So far, she has written six books, including her wildly famous We Should All Be Feminists and Americanah.
4. Sarain Fox
An indigenous Canadian dancer and artist as well as an activist, Sarain Fox’s involvement in social and environmental issues boils down to a concept she has coined as reconciliACTION. Her mission is fundamentally rooted in seeking truth as a bridge towards sustainability and reconciliation of the peoples who inhabit her native Canada, aboriginal or otherwise. She uses her artistic platform to facilitate necessary dialogue between original populations and the descendants of European colonists.
5. Paola Mendoza
Author of the recently published Sanctuary (in addition to her 2013 novel The Ones Who Don’t Stay), Paola Mendoza is a major mouthpiece for human rights, particularly in the context of immigration. Mendoza has so far co-founded the Women’s March, written two social commentary novels, risen in her personal life from gang member to civically engaged activist, directed bilingual films, and advocated for fair trade clothing production. Mendoza is nothing short of a superhero.
I’m going to go ahead and reiterate that these are a handful—a starting point, if you will, to an educational journey into forward-thinking literature and discourse. Start right here, but once you get to that rabbit hole—yes, that one—take it. For God’s sake, go down that rabbit hole.