Each month, we feature new reading suggestions from book lovers across Atlanta’s arts and culture landscape. This month’s list includes a user’s guide for sustaining wellness by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, an essay collection about transformative justice by Mariame Kaba and the case for rethinking White-centered feminism by Rafia Zakaria.
I have a habit of alternating between fiction and nonfiction, and my most recent nonfiction was Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. It’s written by a pair of sisters — Emily and Amelia Nagoski. And if I could, I would buy 100 copies and send one to every working woman I know. With great wit, deep research and huge heart, they lay out the causes of female stress responses and arm you with real-world tools to combat the causes and to compassionately deal with your response to those stressors you simply can’t change. Best of all, each chapter ends with a “tl;dr” page — as in “too long; didn’t read.” And it neatly sums up the last 30 pages.
Understand, I’ve probably read over a hundred self-help books over the years. And while there’ve been some good ones — this one hit home. I think my favorite chapter was on what they call the “Bikini Industrial Complex,” the structural systems that teach women to live in a kind of war with their bodies.
I’ll leave you with one of the many underlined quotes: “When we engage with something larger than ourselves, we make meaning; and when we can resonate, bell-like with that Something Larger, that’s joy. And because our Something Larger is within us, no external circumstances can take away our source of joy, no matter the ‘happenings’ around us.”
— Susan Booth is artistic director of the Alliance Theatre.
Susan Rebecca White
Mariame Kaba is a lifelong activist with deep roots in transformative justice and prison abolition movements. The essays and interviews collected in her eye-opening book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Haymarket Books, 240 pages), explore the ideas underlying her activism, most notably that the solution to violence and harm is not to send people away for long stretches in equally violent prisons, where sexual assault, for example, is such an assumed part of the punishment that it’s become a punchline to prison jokes.
Kaba’s detractors argue that she doesn’t focus enough on those against whom horrific acts of violence have been committed. That is certainly a question I struggled with when I first encountered her work. But a close reading reveals that much of Kaba’s focus is on caring for those (or the families of those) who were devastated by violence, and helping them to find peace, closure and reparation. Kaba does not believe that the world will ever be entirely free of harm, but her book offers solutions that, if enacted, might actually make the world safer for us all.
While I consider myself a prison reformist rather than an abolitionist, Kaba’s book fundamentally altered my sometimes knee-jerk responses to people who have committed horrific acts of violence. Writing that “no one enters violence for the first time by committing it,” she shows how violence begets violence and continues in a cycle until some alternate response (usually a mix of grace, empathy, and a true call for accountability) comes along.
Recognizing the humanity of even those who have done terrible things does not diminish the horror of the acts, but it does offer possibilities for a less sadistic approach to justice. Reading Kaba’s book lifted a veil for me, and allowed me to think at a much deeper level about what true justice and restoration might look like. This seems especially relevant today, as Atlanta’s crime rate has tragically increased, and the predictable calls for more and more punishment too often drown out other solutions that might actually interrupt harm rather than perpetuate it.
— Atlanta native Susan Rebecca White is the author of four novels, including her most recent, We Are All Good People Here (Atria Books, 304 pages).
When I picked up Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption (W. W. Norton Company, 256 Pages), I didn’t know what to expect, but glued to the pages, I read the book in one sitting. Want to think seriously about the exquisite power of “personal is political”? Want to think carefully about privilege — and White privilege? This is your book.
At age 17, while she was still living in her native Pakistan, Zakaria agreed to an arranged marriage in order to move to the U.S., where her husband promised to “allow” her to go to college. “I had never experienced freedom, so I gladly signed it away,” she says. Her husband became abusive and Zakaria fled to a women’s shelter with their young daughter.
Starting with that experience, Zakaria — attorney, seasoned journalist and novelist — now gives us a clear and bold book that features dissonance between “the women who write and speak feminism and the women who live it.” The former are almost exclusively White and middle- or upper-middle-class, while the latter are typically working-class women of color. Zakaria shows women of color are subsumed into the category of “native informants,” “victims” who cannot do theory like White feminist intellectual women, even when they come from privileged backgrounds. This book is as grounded in Zakaria’s struggle in work, and being a mother, writer, person and friend, as it is in her in-depth exploration of history and feminist thought. A provocative and thought-provoking work — yes, it’ll make you feel uncomfortable, and, yes, you might not agree with her evaluation of iconic figures such as Simone de Beauvoir. This book unflinchingly confronts history and dimensions of the feminist movement as it is, how came to be what it is, and where to go from here.
Zakaria tellingly sketches the lineage of capitalist empowerment, political solidarity and White-centered feminism in leading world organizations. She details how the hegemonic aid organizations and feminist groups including the National Organization for Women push away, ignore and diminish women of color worldwide. Against White Feminism is not “against” White feminists, but a call against privilege. A call to address our complicity in structures of power. That applies to White feminists – and to anyone who calls herself/himself a feminist, of any class, race or nation.
— Ruby Lal is an acclaimed historian of India and Professor of South Asian History at Emory University. Her most recent book, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (W. W. Norton, 320 pages) was a Finalist in History for LA Times Book Prize, and won the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year award in Biography.