The Donald Trump Presidency: A Reading List
Donald Trump is the president and there’s not a lot to do about it — except, to carry on. And, I suppose, to continue engaging with politics (if you can), however exhausting and demoralising it is.
But to keep you busy for our next few years of horror, here are some books I think that you should read, if you haven’t already. Not simply as a distraction (which is totally fine, by the way) but also if you think we need to widen our collective perspective.
Literature is about expanding the ways in which we see the world, even if so often the things we read fail to do so. So for this list I’ve chosen mainly women writers and writers of colour, given that Trump has no respect for minorities or women (or, for that matter, literature). The books here are chosen to inform and distract; to mull over Americanness, race, gender and freedom, or simply to add another great voice to the bookshelf — if it’s one you haven’t read already. They’ve not suddenly become relevant now. They’ve always been relevant. But now might be a good time to pick them up.
I’m writing this blog post from an extremely privileged position, and from the UK and not the US. The important voices for this New Age of Conservative Darkness are not voices like mine. They are the voices of those groups and communities that will be negatively affected by Trump’s presidency. My own reading is not as diverse and well-rounded as I would like and is still, and should always be, a work in progress. The first two of which I mentioned previously in “2016 in Books” and I don’t apologise for it, because they’re that good.
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Known and Strange Things is an essay collection which comprises a bunch of separate forms: art and literary criticism, memoir, travel-writing… It’s worth reading no matter what kind of writing interests you because he’s so wide-ranging and his style is so elegant that you don’t always notice the changes. But besides the importance that Teju Cole places on art and literature (something that the new president does not respect) I chose this book because of the value of his writings on politics and race, which in part comes from his insider/outsider perspective as a Nigerian-American. He moves from criticising Heart of Darkness, examining the ways in which photographic film was historically “calibrated for white skin”, to remembering his feelings during Obama’s election:
"Black presidents were no novelty for me. About half my life, the half I lived in Nigeria, had been spent under their rule, and, in my mind, the color of the president was neither here nor there. But this was America. Race mattered. Not the facts: that Obama was not actually descended from slaves, that he was raised in a white household. The facts could be elided easily enough. Race was what mattered, race and the uses for which it was available. […] he was African American only in a special, and technical, sense, the same way I was African American: a black person who held American citizenship. But the history of most blacks in this country—the history of slavery, Reconstruction, systematic disenfranchisement, and the civil rights movement—was not my history. My history was one of emigration, adaptation, and a different flavour of exile. I was only a latter-day sharer in the sorrow and the glory of the African American experience."
Another passage, from an essay entitled “A Reader’s War”, examines one of my favourite things about the former president: his literariness.
“Nevertheless, a man who names among his favourite books Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Robinson’s Gilead and Melville’s Moby Dick, is playing the game pretty seriously. […] It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the president’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine.”
Yet the tone of admiration flips within the same essay to unflinchingly criticising the administration’s use of drone strikes. I think Teju Cole manages to do something a lot of us can't do when it comes to politics (and a lot of things really) which is to, rather than refuse to critically examine something that we like, to hold things we admire to a higher standard of analysis.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
Warsan Shire writes disturbingly good poetry, relating small-scale family- and community-based stories from refugees and immigrant communities, and does so through their own voices, rather than representing them from the outside (she often records conversations with a Dictaphone before writing). In particular, her poems feel embodied. Now more obvious than ever, it's clear that as a culture we have not made as large of a leap towards fully accepting female sexuality as we would like to think. In Warsan Shire’s poetry, the trauma of war and immigration are literally embodied, exploring what the West would either rather not think about, or simply never acknowledge: the autonomy and sexuality of women of colour.
“Can’t you see it on my body? The
Libyan Desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the
city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles
because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer
than the land. I want to make love, but my hair smells of war and running
and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles
who touch you when you’re young and asleep.”
Toni Morrison is quite simply one of the most important living American novelists. I’d recommend that anyone read literally any novel she’s ever written, most of which focus on the stories of poor black women. I cannot really recommend a specific one, rather than recommend her simply as a writer. I have read The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved and I think that Song of Solomon was my favourite, but it’s been a little while since I’ve read them. The Bluest Eye, her first novel, might be the most relevant in that it deals with the way representation, poverty, and other forms of less visible racism manifest in the mind of the most vulnerable member of American society: a poor black girl
“They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly. Although their poverty was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique. No one could convince them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly […] They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’”
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Although I found it listed under "poetry" in the bookshop I work at, Citizen reads at times like a collection of critical essays, and at others of poetry or memoir. And all of this is interspersed with art, photographs, and pictures lifted from online. Rankine uses whatever form best conveys her point in that particular moment, recalling cases of microaggressions and racist language in her own life, memorialising the victims of violence by the US police force, or discussing the sexism and racism that Serena Williams has faced during her career. There really isn’t any other book like it that I have ever read, from a formal point of view, but it is also valuable in how it conveys with real immediacy the extent to which politics is personally lived by its citizens.
On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti
This is a quick, digestible read about holding power to account in the world following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent government retaliation against our civil liberties, taken out in the name of peace and safety. Shami Chakrabarti is a human rights lawyer, member of the House of Lords, and was the former director of Liberty, a human rights advocacy group — so the book is naturally dense with philosophy and law (which is why I read it, really). But it’s a pretty easy book to read in an afternoon, and I think an enlightening one, because she draws on real examples from modern politics to show how our governments have been systematically undermining us.
Although I’m not much of an absolutist on liberalism or, for example, freedom of speech (blog post for another time), this book questioned a lot of what I thought I knew about how much power our governments hold over us. It really changed my mind on a lot of things and made me far more worried about where history is heading. I don’t think I need to explain why this was relevant reading before Trump’s presidency; I definitely don’t need to explain why it is relevant reading now.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
In the introduction to Persepolis, Satrapi writes
“Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.”
Persepolis is an auto-bio comic about Marjane Satrapi’s life, growing up during the Islamic Revolution, and coming-of-age as a refugee in Europe. It’s a charming personal story about growing-up as a Muslim woman in Austria and France, and it also takes the reader through the cultural history and politics of Iran. As a comic, it makes us a direct witness to her memory, and makes the reader literally see how trauma invades the otherwise relatable story of her childhood — which is part of why auto-bio comics are such a great form. (Comics are uniquely suited to writing about trauma, but that’s a blog post for another time). It’s thus a successful and direct challenge to the dominant images of Iran and of Islam in politics, which are overwhelmingly negative and dehumanising. Rethinking and challenging how our culture thinks about the Middle East and of Islam is going to be one of the most important challenges of modern history, and consuming first-person, honest representation is the first step.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Because American Gods is Gaiman’s love letter to America, I simply have to include it to remind myself a few things about America that it’s easy to forget from the outside.
In content and style, it reads like an epic road trip across the continent in which we encounter forgotten cultures, traditions and practices, manifest into physical characters. Moreover, it’s a fantasy novel that deals with the changing world. The gods, which American immigrants from the last few thousand years bring to the continent, must contend and adapt to the new things that we worship and the ways in which we worship them. It’s a fantasy story about multiculturalism, modernity, and displacement and it is really one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read.
Gaiman, writing as an ex-pat, white Brit, comes to America with both insider’s and outsider’s eyes, and it reads as an attempt to understand what America is beyond what we imagine it to be. Naturally, the portrait he paints is unfixed. It’s not, and can’t be, a complete whole. It’s a series of places and cultures that you pass through. This is easily forgotten (or ignored), I think, when, like me, you’re white and English-speaking.
I include this for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s an immersive fantasy book that will at least partially take your mind off the election. But not for too long: it’s also a rare fantasy book that, rather than invent a world of new foreign cultures, turns its eye to exploring the known, ignored or forgotten cultures that make up our own reality, and celebrates specifically America for its multiculturalism. When some of the other books on the list will get you down on the state of America’s political climate, American Gods will fill you with a sense of wanderlust.
And, last but not least,
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I know I was wrong about this, but I read this book treating it as a lost or relatively unheard of masterpiece. I think that in the US it is far more widely read and discussed than in the UK, but perhaps it had just never come into my sphere. Despite that, I had written a recommendation for it in the bookshop I work in that said, “Here’s probably the best American classic you’ve never read” — and hopefully that applies to you, reading this. I just simply couldn’t believe after I’d read it that I’d never heard of it before. I know it’s incredibly famous but it still should be more widely read than it is.
Invisible Man is one of my all-time favourite American novels, mostly due to how it uses the absurdity and surrealism of postmodern writing in order to discuss the individual experience of African Americans in US society. The narrator, who sees himself as invisible because of his race, is thrown, stripped of any sense of agency, into situations that are so horrifyingly absurd that they seem completely severed from reality, and yet unflinchingly reflect the realities of American experience in the first half of the 20th century. At every stage of the novel, from when he is in the fighting ring at the beginning, to working in a factory, to becoming an eloquent and powerful civil rights leader, the narrator is at the mercy of others and of the society as a whole, and the whole thing is written in this hypnotic, beautiful, rhythmic prose that’s unlike anything I have ever read.
And, on my immediate "To Read":
I had the wonderful Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, bought for me for my birthday. I’ve never read any of her work before but have been meaning to for a very long time. From what I’ve read so far, it reads as a meditation “on black bodies and black music,” and on the ongoing presence of inequality. It’s easy to get locked into our sphere of privilege, so reading about people from different backgrounds isn’t just important but it’s essential.
A book I bought for myself on a recommendation recently was Iraq +100. It’s a collection of short stories by ten Iraqi writers, who were asked to write about what their country will look like a century after the American-British invasion. From what I’ve been told, it’s mainly a collection of science-fiction and magical realism, which is particularly great since so much mainstream science-fiction and fantasy is so white and can so often leave out the future of our world’s relationship with race all together, despite race, religion and national identity being some of the core topics of modern political discourse.
Obviously, this list is wildly incomplete. If you would like to, please recommend me some writers and books I should be reading — particularly writers of colour and women writers. I still read far too narrowly and am, inevitably, too influenced by the biases of modern publishing and bookselling. But if there is a time to read more diversely, then it is now.
This is a companion post to another one I am writing on a similar topic, that I hope to post in the next week.