One of my favorite by-products of Themed Readings, is when a series of books align on an idea I’d never even considered before, creating a through-line that is resonant and significant, but had since gone unnoticed. My best example of this was when I started considering the implications of ‘cultural memory.’ I hadn’t thought about it much, but after reading certain books it became an idea I apply to life quite frequently. So here are the books that made me consider deeply something I had never thought about before.
Fiction- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
All of Ishiguro’s books address memory in some way. And most of his books also deal with how a culture deals with memory. But usually this perspective is provide through an individual’s personal recollections and so the memory of the collective feels secondary. However, with his book The Buried Giant, Ishiguro thrusts the memory of a group to the forefront, and then puts the memories (or lack thereof) of individuals into the supporting role. This was my introduction to the topic and its inherent tough questions. Is it better to remember the wrongs done while a society developed? Or is it better to forget- to move on and try to make the most of the future without dredging up the wrongs of the past? In The Buried Giant individuals of Medieval Britain and the country as a whole confront these questions. Should they ignore the real harm done in its creation, or leave it all buried beneath them in the hopes of a better future? The correct choice is left ambiguous, almost doomed for failure. The success of any society will be on the bones of those who were wronged, and those bones don’t often remain buried.
Fiction- The Giver by Lois Lowry
I found the convergence of this complex theme, and this popular middle grade fiction work to be one of the most delightful examples of unexpected theme overlap. The Buried Giant, a relatively new book, got me thinking about the idea of a cultural memory. But then reading The Giver for the first time- admittedly really late in my life- made me realize we had been asking children in middle schools all over the United States to think about a culture’s memory for years. The Giver and Jonas must bear the memories of the society, the positives and the negatives, simultaneously protecting them from what was wrong and taking from them all that is vibrant. Jonas recognizes the downside of forgetting, even after having lived in a society that chose to forget- a seeming paradise at that. And he elects pain and heartache and the uncomfortableness of acknowledging their cultural past, the good and the bad.
Nonfiction- Begin Again by Eddie Glaude
The best part of these themes is when they jump from fiction into nonfiction. And the concept of a cultural memory became a point of contention for all of us in the past year as a portion of the United States asked the country to acknowledge the sins of our past and reconcile with it to create a better future. In response, more than a few Americans questioned the merit of focusing on what we had done wrong, claiming that it would only further the already considerable divide, and questioning what could meaningfully be done about those sins anyway. The conversation was often not held well or civilly, but it is a good conversation nonetheless. How do we talk about what we did wrong, like racism, without growing the already existent bitterness? And how can we move past our past wrongdoings when those who were wrong still feel unreconciled and/or we refuse further conversation on the topic? These are the complicated questions that Begin Again, a book about what James Baldwin, has to teach us about our current racial reckoning. James Baldwin focused on how America can overcome racism of the past and present to have a future we can push towards together. He confronted the past head on and through reflecting on the impact racism had on black people who experienced it and the white people who perpetuated it, he teaches us a better and more accurate story about who we are.
Fiction- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Similarly with The Giver, this tough topic about cultural memory (this time as it pertains to race) has been packaged for younger readers as well. The Hate U Give was a sensation upon its release and will continue to be read for years to come. Dealing specifically with the impact a police shooting has on a community, The Hate U Give tells a story about racism’s impact on Starr Carter, and how she navigates both the black community that still has not healed from the scars of police violence and discrimination, and a white community that has not confronted it. There is truth in fiction, and this book does not shy away from any of the complexities of this conversation- including police killings, the portrayal of those who were killed, and the rioting and looting that so often follows, presenting it with the special type of profundity that is unique to books for children.
Fiction- The Fifth Season by NK Jesmin
The Fifth Season the first book in the groundbreaking (pun intended) Broken Earth trilogy, is not about cultural memory per say… but understanding the way cultural memory is at play in any society helps add dimension and layers to this already terrific book. The book revolves around the same character at different time periods in her life, after having renamed and recreated herself as someone new. She traverses a land that constantly refreshes itself after devastating climatological disasters, the only consistency between ‘Seasons’ is the stonelore which maintains history and the prejudicial hatred against the main character’s magical people, the orogeny. The Fifth Season is built on the premise that in order to make a society work it often is on the backs of oppressed, and the difficulties of trying to break that cycle when you experience the oppression.
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