The Books Briefing: A Struggle to Breathe

Processing pain and racial trauma: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Many remarkable narratives explore the affliction of racially oppressed people in granular detail. Saidiya Hartman’s written history of black women arriving in urban American cityscapes at the turn of the 20th century encapsulates marginalized people’s struggle to live. In her book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, she centralizes the stories of that population of black drifters, marking all of the obstacles of their journeys, while underscoring the marvel of their existence.

Pecola Breedlove, the main character in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, finds it difficult to recognize her own beauty amid the presence of the white gaze, which defines the standard of beauty in opposition to her natural features. The protagonist in Tomi Adeyemi’s young-adult fantasy novel Children of Blood and Bone wields magic through her ability to conjure memories of her dead ancestors in order to fight off her people’s oppressors.

The author Alaa Al Aswany recalls a line from a Dostoevsky novel that emphasizes the function that literature may have in empathy-building. His novel The Automobile Club of Egypt is set in Cairo on the fault lines between the British-colonial presence and the exploited natives. In her analytical essay collection, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong notes how the spectacle of racial trauma can provide voyeuristic pleasure for some.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Meaning, without the white gaze
“I survived the white gaze for Pecola [Breedlove], and [Toni] Morrison taught me how.”

📚 The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
📚 Surviving the White Gaze, by Rebecca Carroll

How art can double as historical corrective
“The young women [Saidiya Hartman] writes about were stubbornly demanding new forms of personal liberation, simply by living their lives as they pleased.”

📚 Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,  by Saidiya Hartman

What stories about racial trauma leave out
“[Cathy Park Hong] describes herself as working against an unfortunate archetype: the narrative that presents racial trauma as a kind of catalyst for personal growth.”

📚 Minor Feelings,  by Cathy Park Hong

Where fantasy meets Black Lives Matter
“Tales such as {Tomi] Adeyemi’s and her predecessors’ wield a magic beyond the imaginative spells they cast. Their work illuminates the ways in which speculative fiction has in a sense been about the stories of people of color all along.”

📚 Children of Blood and Bone,  by Tomi Adeyemi

How literature inspires empathy
The Automobile Club of Egypt is set in 1940s Cairo, during the last days of British colonial rule. … The book subverts the opulent setting by casting its narrative lot with the underclass, the servants and sycophants who serve oppressive masters but mock them behind their backs.”

📚 The Automobile Club of Egypt,  by Alaa Al Aswany

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About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s thinking about right now is Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

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