Three Books About Belonging

Here are three more books that I recommend. They all explore the complications around belonging in a variety of circumstances: in a new country; in a small community; as descendants of immigrants; as refugees; in unanticipated roles. Each of these books presents with sensitivity, concern, and brutal honesty the challenges experienced by people we might know or even be.

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankam Thammavongsa.

This collection of short stories brings the life of refugees into sharp focus. The author, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Toronto, Canada, knows exactly which moments to draw to our attention.

A man wants to spend his first pay cheque on something special for the family and after some family discussion buys a record player, because in Laos only rich people owned record players. A dad comes home from work early to help his children get dressed for Hallowe’en. They don’t understand what it is all about, but they know that if they stand at people’s doors saying “chick-a-chee” they will get candy.

I loved every one of these stories. Some made me laugh, some made me sad, and they all gave me a new understanding of the day-to-day realities of refugees. So many small details that I don’t even notice are mysteries to be solved or hurdles to overcome for these newcomers.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Each chapter in this book describes a different woman. They all live in England, or are the forebears of people who do. The vision for the book is enormous in breadth and depth of experience, and it involves sometimes brutal current day and historical realities. In telling their stories the author confronts the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, culture, politics, and class, all within fascinating portraits.

The school dropout, LaTisha, becomes a single mother of three children and, eventually, after evening school and after taking online university courses, she is proud to become a supermarket supervisor. Her former schoolfriend, Carole, separated herself from LaTisha’s group of wild girls and began to study in earnest. Eventually, she became the Vice President of a bank. LaTisha doesn’t recognize the girl she once knew when she discovers her professional bio online. These are just two of the twelve black British women who, whether they know it or not, are connected.

The narratives take us to various times and places, and give each woman a distinct and fascinating voice. Their stories are interrelated even though they cover the past hundred years of life in Britain. As I read each one, I felt a new appreciation for the complexities of their lives and their personal and professional trials and triumphs. It is a big book in every sense of the word, and I was thoroughly drawn in to the wide-reaching and insightful vignettes.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

This book also uses each chapter to describe a different person’s life, but this time all the people know each other because they all live in the same small community in Maine.

We observe their comings and goings through the eyes of a retired seventh-grade math teacher, Olive Kitteridge. There were times when I thought the author was describing me because Olive is sometimes withdrawn, sometimes anti-social, and sometimes thinks other people are not too bright. Most of the time, there isn’t much to like about her, but she seems to actually like her family and neighbours, despite what she might say or do to suggest the contrary.

As we follow Olive through her retirement years, we watch with her as her former students live up to and down to her expectations. She is so sure she is right that she doesn’t always see how much they have changed. Her adult son finds her too difficult to live with because she takes offence at imagined slights about which he is completely unaware. Her husband, Henry, loves her in spite of herself.

Eventually, Olive begins to become more self-aware as the people of the town go through experiences that stretch her perceptions of them.Throughout, the honesty of the writing allows us to put up a mirror to ourselves and, at the same time, to reflect on the daily challenges that others face.

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