Saturday, June 25, 2016
Finding the light
How do people look for books to read? It's an interesting question and an interesting suite of answers have been created in response. Book clubs have been around forever, trade paperbacks usually have a few pages of recommended reading available from the same publisher and author, Goodreads has sprung up and began offering suggestions based on your previously-read and well-reviewed books.
There are just a whole bunch of books that I should have read that I haven't and it makes me sad. I read a lot of things that are related to the content I'm interested in - you hear about a lot of sci-fi authors when you're the kind of person who reads a lot of sci-fi, Amazon recommends physics books to people who read physics books, and Goodreads is always happy to tell you about new works by writers you've read. But what if you haven't read something, what if a wonderful book is wholly unconnected to your typical sphere of interests?
I've been running into that issue a lot in the last few months. It started with The Color Purple. It was an amazing book, a beautiful book, a book that told a story I needed to read, but it was a book I'd never picked up or had recommended to me until I found it at a dollar store and said "well, why not?" That got me thinking about the types of authors I read and who were recommended to me: here's a hint, they're good writers but they are part of a very specific and very privileged group. That's when I decided that I was going to read more marginalized authors. I wanted to read the stories that women and queers and people of color and disabled folks had to tell. I wanted to see what group that aren't put front and center by publishers have to say.
And it's been largely marvelous.
I'm bringing this up because once again I've read a book that I'm angry I hadn't read before.
Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is fucking wonderful. The characters pop off the page and inhabit the spaces in your mind. It's a play, not a novel, so of course character is important but the level of consideration Hansberry wrote into the stage directions and character descriptions makes these particular images seem whole and real. They are tragic and funny and so goddamned powerful that it takes your breath away.
In the introduction there's a brief discussion about how frustrating it is that Hansberry's characters from the 50s are so relevant in the late 80s and I'll simply echo that and say that it's tremendously upsetting that this struggling black family is still such an apt portrait today. Housing discrimination, natural hair, the role of women, the availability of work, the importance of education, and the structure of the family are all major points explored in the play and what Hansberry has to say about them is still at the heart of many arguments you hear in America today. I wish this was only a story of yesteryear, a trip back into a more bigoted time, but it is unfortunately a picture of challenges that black women and families still face in the US.
It's also beautiful and triumphant. Hansberry's play is so successful because it doesn't trap her characters, it allows her to showcase their bold refusal to accept the bigotry they're faced with. They're allowed to find their light and stand proud instead of shriveling, to grow as people full of hope.
I wish that I'd read this book a long time ago. It's beautiful and I'm happy to have had the opportunity to experience it.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books. New York: New York. 1988. (1958).