The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Born in Hyesan, North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was raised, as all of her peers were, to believe that her country was the “Greatest Nation on Earth.” Indoctrinated from the time she was born to worship the leaders of her country above all else, she witnessed at the age of 7 what happened when one opposed the regime: public execution. But even while she felt the pressure to blend in and follow the party line, she noted that there were, in truth, stark differences in how people lived. While the communists sang about equality among the people, how their government provided for its people, Hyeonseo observed that a family’s social status determined just how much that government actually provided. In reality, it was far from an equal distribution. And while she was privileged to some degree, this privilege did not protect her family from political danger. In this memoir, she shares her utterly harrowing story of her years-long journey toward freedom.

If you’ve followed this blog, you will note that I have been reading quite a bit about various refugee experiences. All of them are impossibly harrowing, but none has read more like a suspense novel than this one. At every turn, this young woman and her family encountered unimaginable peril, always being on the verge of disaster and often experiencing heart-wrenching disappointment and suffering. They were constantly at the mercy of others, usually being preyed upon by corrupt officers and traffickers alike, rarely reaping the courageous generosity of others, even strangers. Most profoundly, once they finally did achieve freedom, they actually had to be taught that humans deserved fundamental human rights in order to understand how deeply their own had been violated.

The bravery and dedication to family demonstrated by this heroine is infinite. She is an inspiration to all of us, particularly in this moment when we are seeing so many fleeing their homes in search of safety. It reminds us that no one chooses to leave their home. One leaves only when there is no other choice.

I’d like to depart from my usual post and add a poem which I found deeply moving (shared with me by an inspirational leader for whom I am so grateful):

Home by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying —
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

 

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

In this tender memoir, Trevor Noah shares his experience growing up during the final edge of apartheid in South Africa. Through vividly narrated vignettes, we learn about his complicated relationship with his mother, who is fiercely devoted to him and yet is independent, stubborn and vulnerable. We learn of his early struggles to find himself, and how he must battle against the vicious cycle of poverty that apartheid has inflicted upon his people.  

It was suggested to me to listen to the audio version of this book – and this was excellent advice.  Hearing Trevor Noah narrate his own story, in his own beautiful, South African accent and fluidly modulating to his family and friends’ voices and accents, is just a gift to yourself. 

Noah is a brilliant storyteller.  He shares his experiences with such warmth and humor, as if he is sitting with you in your living room, over a cup of your favorite hot tea – but as if he’s sharing his deepest, darkest memories, only with you.  He describes in colorful detail some of the most outrageous adventures and unbelievable experiences.  But even as he shares his joy and his pain, it is as if he is flickering a smile at you, as if to say, we can still laugh, even as we hurt.  This is how we cope.

You will be engrossed and amazed — you will gasp and you will laugh out loud.  Don’t just read this one – listen to it!  

It’s a “MUST READ” but more than that, it’s a “MUST LISTEN!”

 

An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski

An Invisible Thread Sews Together An Unusual Friendship – CW50 Detroit

 

Laura was no stranger to the streets of Manhattan in the mid-1980’s, but something made her stop and turn around after passing a small, skinny, Black boy asking for money on one fateful Monday afternoon.  His name was Maurice, and he was half-starved, and when she invited him for lunch at McDonald’s, he accepted.  Laura was careful not to pry too far, but could see that Maurice was fending largely for himself, and she was unsure if she’d ever even see him again or how that would happen.  To her amazement, though, she did, every Monday from then on.  From this bloomed an unlikely friendship that became a blessing for both Laura and Maurice.  

This is a true story that is told from Laura’s perspective, but gives a great deal of background from Maurice’s family experience as well.  Both of them have experienced a great deal of family trauma, although Maurice’s is quite dire, with most of his family falling victim to the devastating crack epidemic of the 1980’s.  While Maurice is clearly loved by his family, particularly his mother and grandmother, they are both usually too ill to properly care for him and he is often left to his own,  skillful, but youthful devices.  When Laura meets him, he is living in a crowded single room with many drug-addicted relatives where there is no routine, no structure, and never any food in the fridge.  Laura is the first person to ask him what he might consider being when he grows up, giving him a first glimpse of the possibility of a real future for himself, besides what he sees in his family.  

On one hand, this story is inspiring.  Laura speaks freely about how she has gained as much from the relationship as she has given.  While she truly has given, whether in lunches made in brown paper bags – signifying to Maurice a show of love and care for him – or clothing, or just a periodic respite from his tumultuous family life, she has also received.  She has not had relationships where she was able to have children, and I believe Maurice was sort of like a son to her.  She was able to lavish attention, occasional gifts and intermittently share her wisdom with him, the way she might with a son, and she felt gratification in this.  And certainly, Maurice was given something of a lifeline, in that he was shown a different possibility for how his life might be – that he did not have to follow the path of his family and that he could choose a steadier, healthier, and safer path for himself.  And he did.

On the other hand, the story being written as it was also feels a bit self-congratulatory and almost cringe-worthy.  We’re here again, with another white woman “saving'” a Black boy – and it just feels a bit uncomfortable to read about this.  Laura is truly generous and giving – but why does she have to write about it?  While “a portion” of the proceeds from the book are destined for the No Kid Hungry non-profit group, it still feels a bit strange. 

I’d be very curious to hear what others feel about this book and this issue.  I invite your comments!  I am truly torn over this one! 

 

 

 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: 9781984899767 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Gifty is striving to complete her final doctoral thesis in neuroscience on addictive behaviors. She knows she’s obsessing over her data, and that she needs to move on to the writing of the final paper, but her past has come back to haunt her and she is stuck.  It may be that the visit from her mother, drowning in her own pain, will nudge her forward.  Or will it be her sifting through her old journals from her youth?  Somehow, Gifty works through a resolution and confronts the deeply painful religious, emotional and philosophical issues that are holding her back. 

This memoir is a recounting of a second generation immigrant from Ghana who suffers multiple layers of trauma during her childhood,  while seeking and finding little community support in her small town, Southern evangelical church.  Needless to say, her struggle is complicated.

One recurrent theme is the conflict she feels between religion and science.  Having memorized large swaths of scripture for her mother’s approval and having limited experience outside her small, Bible belt town in Alabama until college, she has a deeply ingrained emotional connection to her religion and to a traditional belief in God.  On the other hand, her more cerebral side has rejected much of the dogma the church espouses; whether the narrow views on sexuality, the scorning of evolutionary theory, or the criticism of science in general.  So when a fellow student criticizes those who are religious, she is not quite sure what to feel, but she is simultaneously insulted and embarrassed.  She identifies with those being criticized but also sees why they are being so.   

The other inescapable message here is the devastation that occurs when a family member has an addiction. Not only does the addict suffer, but everyone around him suffers as well.  When Nana, Gifty’s brother disappears, she and her mother spend hours searching for him to try to bring him home to safety.  When he is not functioning, the whole family is not able to function.  And the cycling and unpredictability has devastating effects on everyone for years to come. 

This very real story hits hard and is a hard read.  We are very fortunate that the author has chosen to share her experience with us.  

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel: Allende, Isabel, Caistor, Nick,  Hopkinson, Amanda: 9781984820150: Amazon.com: Books

Victor Dalmau has found himself rooted, with only a few years of medical training, in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, repairing the wounds of the Republicans fighting the Fascists who are seeking to rule Spain.  While he is useless with a gun —  quite unlike his brother Guillem, the consummate warrior — he finds purpose in healing those who are, and he supports them in their calling.  Little does he know how deeply he would continue to feel the pain of injustice and persecution and how this early mission would direct the trajectory of his life and that of his family. 

This is a beautifully written novel, based on the true story of one survivor of the Spanish Civil War.  After this war,  thousands fled first to France, were placed in dreadful concentration camps, and two thousand fortunate souls were rescued by the poet Neruda on a ship to Chile called the Winnipeg.  In Chile, they were welcomed and given refuge and opportunity and allowed to flourish until there was political unrest there as well.  Our hero, Victor, embodies the strong, immigrant character: hardworking, valuing family above all else, and devoted to the preservation of humanity and justice.    

I am so thankful to have read this novel.  In my ignorance of history, I have never known much about this tragic era in our world’s history.   Learning it through the eyes of these gorgeous characters was, in my view, the best way to attempt to correct this, because the facts are interwoven with deep emotion, and this is how they are best etched into our memories.  And while this is not necessarily an absolute/comprehensive and final look, it is certainly a great start to learning about this dark moment in Spain, France and South America.  

And even while enlightening us about the historical period, the author does not neglect to interweave a complex plot, with suspense, subplots, and even romance that bear surprise twists.  She keeps us intrigued with each step of Victor’s harrowing journey.  

This is an important read for those who are are unaware of this period of history – and even for those who aren’t.  And while I don’t like to overload the “MUST READ’s,” this has to be placed there – sorry!

 

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Amazon.com: Lost Roses: A Novel (9781524796372): Kelly, Martha Hall: Books

8-year old Luba is not happy, having to share her older sister Sofya with anyone, let alone this American, Eliza. Here in Paris, far away from their home in Petrograd, they seem to be the best of friends somehow, laughing and talking of anything but what Luba is interested in (astronomy, of course!)- that is, until their big surprise, arranged just for Luba. All too quickly, however, Luba understands that Eliza may be the best friend that the two sisters have, as their whole world comes crashing down on them, with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the disintegration of the Tzar’s regime.

This story, loosely based on the real life story of Eliza Ferriday, is a gorgeous narrative about the plight of the “White Russian,” the elite Russian class torn apart and displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. It is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters, as well as from Varinka, a poor, young woman who worked for Sofya briefly, taking care of her young boy. While each woman was struggling with her own internal battle, each also was a victim of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were also interconnected and the story was woven together with threads that bound them throughout. This telling of the story through each of their perspectives also served to build tremendous suspense, particularly at the end of each chapter.

One unusual aspect of this story was the absence of demonizing the rich. So often in literature, the wealthy are assumed to be snobbish and evil and the poor are assumed to be altruistic and pure and good. What I admired here was that the characters were beyond that. There were some wealthy characters who were elitist for sure, but there were plenty who were generous and kind – likewise, with the poor. It was a refreshing avoidance of stereotypes.

I felt I gained more of an understanding of the Russian Revolution from this book. It gave an alternative version, something of a balanced viewpoint. It is true that the Tzar was terrible in his management of the country – his mismanagement of the economy, ignoring the needs of the masses, and certainly murder of the Jews in the country. This story strongly acknowledged this. But the Bolsheviks’ methods were not exactly honorable either. There was so much bloodshed and misery in order, really, to just put a different small number of people into a position of power over the masses. With new forms of propaganda that were just as deceiving and dishonest.

From the author of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, this is another MUST READ! Give yourself this very gripping and very loving gift!

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

In the fall of 2007, Amanda Knox joined the many college juniors who left their campuses to study abroad, Amanda choosing a small town, Perugia, in Italy for her experience. Because her chosen university did not have a dorm for her to live in, she felt fortunate when she stumbled upon an apartment she would ultimately share with 3 other women. Life with the others began quite peacefully, and she formed a comfortable relationship with each of them. What she never imagined was that one of them would be brutally murdered by a stranger, and that she, Amanda, would be wrongfully accused of being the twisted ringleader of this murder.

I felt compelled to read this story, as I’d felt compelled, years before, to listen to this story every time it came on the news, in each of its permutations. When it first was announced in the media, the story was quite bizarre, filled with seedy details of sex and drugs that sounded questionable even back then. And the more it was discussed, the more bizarre and unlikely it sounded.

Reading the actual story was much more painful, however. It was no longer someone far away – it was now someone I was getting to know and empathize with. I hadn’t remembered so many of the actual details of the story – or probably never was given the true ones — nor learned about her personal life before the murder or during the trials. I also didn’t know how much time she served in prison, before she was finally found to be fully innocent. And I also didn’t how the prosecution obtained their evidence and how willfully they pursued a feeble motive/explanation for the events against the weight of the evidence for the defense. It was truly like watching a car wreck – you can’t look at it and at the same time, you can’t look away.

And honestly, even though I knew the ending, there was still a great degree of suspense. The ups and downs were wildly intense and I felt the ride right along with her. When she was trapped inside those walls of the prison, I felt almost as if I was inside there with her.  It was almost hard to breathe. At the same time, she showed a courage and hopefulness I’m not sure I would have had.

This was a very quick read that I’d definitely recommend!

 

 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration:  Wilkerson, Isabel: 8580001042800: Amazon.com: Books

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and George Swanson Starling never knew each other, nor did they live in the same time or place — yet they all had something in common: they each participated in the Great Migration and for parallel reasons. Through this gritty chronicle of their lives, we earn a deeper appreciation for how the Jim Crow south drove millions of black folks northward and westward, in desperate search of freedom and civil rights.  We also see how they experienced both successes and failures when they arrived.

This impressive work of non-fiction reads like part novel/part PhD thesis, but as a whole, it works. The parts that tell the story of each of these individuals’ lives are profoundly beautiful and what drive the book forward.   The author delivers their stories with such tenderness and detail that she lifts each of them off of the page and brings them into the room with you, bringing with them their hopes and their heartaches.  And interwoven with their stories is the historical context in which they are living.  The author zooms out to portray the larger picture of what is happening — what wars, economic factors, or local social affairs, sometimes graphic, are impacting our 3 protagonists at the time.  This sometimes gets quite dense, but it definitely contributes a great deal to the depth of the story.  

The larger question is this:  Did those who risked their lives, often sneaking out in the middle of the night,  to migrate to the north/west fare better than those who stayed in the south? I believe this is a complex question and one the author was seeking to answer with the writing of this book.  Those who left were desperately seeking a chance to be recognized as individuals who deserved their civil rights under the law, to be seen as equal to everyone else.  When they arrived in the north and/or west, they were allowed to sit anywhere on the bus and to drink at any water fountain.  But they definitely were not treated as equals to everyone else in their their job searches or their housing purchases.   

I’d be very interested to hear your opinion about the conclusions drawn in this book.  It’s an important discussion.  

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.