Reads for times of crises, part 3

Spines of selected books from the list

Books for times of crises

I was so inspired by the latest Universe in Verse that I decided to write the next part straight away. While I was watching it, in fact, when listening to the first piece on the list. It was just what the doctor ordered, as it turned out. Inspiration struck again.

That was a month ago now… This month has been a challenge. At the start of the lockdown, I was quite naive to think I could get through it without much effort by just applying a few simple rules, like reading hopeful stories. Still, these have been enormously helpful. In low moments, a bit of Hope in the Dark, helped me up every single time. And in the lowest ones, when reading seemed like too much effort, podcasts have proven to be a lifeline. I have also finally become, somewhat anyway, an audio-books convert, for the same reason.

So here goes, the latest edition of my list of great reads for times of crises:

  1. Singularity by Marie Howe – perhaps the most poignant piece of poetry ever written, about the ultimate interconnection between us all, as humans. This year’s Universe in Verse also managed to create an animation to go with it. It was incredible. Tear-jerking. And inspiring, like I already mentioned. This blog post exists thanks to it. There’s no point quoting from it – I believe it needs to be read in full for full impact (or listened too – you can do it, and see the accompanying animation, on the Brainpickings website (my second top find over the past couple of months, btw), among other wonderful clips from the Universe in Verse 2020).
  2. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron – I first came across this beautiful book when listening to one of the latest episodes of the On Being podcast (the sanity-restoring podcast series that I have become addicted to during this testing time). This episode was, as usual, an interview, an experimental as it might have been. But it was also – or at least it felt like it to me – a meditation. A meditation on life and finding hope in the most unlikely moments in life. Exactly the kind that I needed on that particular day, and we all need these days. “Hope is a muscle” Krista Tippett says. And this book has proven to be an absolute find on the route to discovering this truth. “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” is the opening line of the first chapter and possibly the clearest reflection of one of the strongest sentiments that has followed me through the lockdown – it has not been easy, but it has certainly been interesting, eye-opening even, in many ways.
  3. Solidarity in a Disaster with Rebecca Solnit – another life-saving podcast, especially for those having trouble focusing on reading during these anxiety-inducing times, like me. On how humans really react to a disaster. While one of the most persistent myths of our world is that chaos and violence ensues, Rebecca Solnit paints a much more hopeful picture, one of humanity’s immense capacity for solidarity and connection. And yes, it’s backed up with facts. It’s based on the stories that she documented in Paradise Built in Hell, which I’ve quoted here before. And it’s a version of the story that is still counter-intuitive and rarely recognised in our culture, and one that we urgently need to hear. And see – looking at the incredible mutual aid response of the communities around us – and pass on.  It is also an open call to use this time to profoundly rethink our ‘normal’ ways and the stories we tell ourselves: “Your life pauses and you wonder – what really sustains me…” Solnit says. This is a good time to also think about what sustains us – our communities and our world. Which leads me onto…
  4. Expletives Deleted by Angela Carter – a very personal choice, for Carter’s way with words is one of those reading experiences that I would call formative, for the power of the form as much as the writing itself. Her essay in the collection, The Alchemy of the Word, seems particularly timely, for it searches for a new perspective, new ways of perceiving and describing the world, which, again, I think we desperately need in times like these. “The Russian Revolution of 1917 suggested the end of one world might mark the commencement of another world… The conviction that struggle can bring something better”, Carter says in the opening of the chapter. This is a sentiment and a vision of the world that I personally needed, when the pandemic and the lockdown started. But I also think it is one that we all are (or should perhaps be) searching for these days.
  5. A Planet to Win by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos – not on this crisis, as you have probably guessed by looking at the titles, but perhaps now is the perfect time for it also. Perhaps somewhat intuitively, but, as we start coming out of the immediate crisis of coronavirus (and arguably so, and admittedly very slowly), could be the one last real opportunity we will get to salvaging this planet. As countries such as Britain try to force their way out of the lockdown, pushed largely by economic forces, we have a small window of opportunity to think about how this transition should proceed. An opening when many across the country, and the world are saying: we are not going back to business as usual! When I started reading this book I felt very inspired because it seemed to be creating a road map – one that wasn’t necessarily purpose-built for the current crisis, but could be the perfect one for it. At the same time as I listened to this podcast, and the two made perfect sense together:
  6. Manifesto for a Moral Revolution by Jacqueline Novogratz – a book, and in fact, my first successful experiment with an e-book, which is a format that I could never quite get myself to accept before. I found it while tuning into another brilliant episode of the On Being podcast on a lazy weekend. And, in combination with the book I mentioned above, my quest for a solution to this huge problem (or an avalanche of problems, rather) that we have right now seemed to come together. I know, it might sound a bit grandiose to say that. I don’t mean that I came up with the solution! All I’m saying is that they restored my hope in a way out of this terrible mess of multiple crises that we found ourselves in. That perhaps it’s not too late yet, and that maybe there even is a road map out of this horrendous storm. As draft and untested as it is at this stage… “We are always in the process of becoming,” Novogratz says in her book. Perhaps never more than at times like these. Perhaps now, more than ever, is a time and an opportunity for humanity to become something else, something better. But the road is not an easy one. It has never been taken before, after all.
  7. A Global Green New Deal in conversation with Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein. And yes, even more on green issues! Originally streamed online on the 19th May 2020, the conversation happened in the midst of the pandemic, so it became a helpful addition to the book I was reading on this, as everything has suddenly shifted since it was published. Hope isn’t as easy as to find in the talk as I’d wished when I tuned into it. But that’s why it’s a wise and a much needed exchange. Putting the current crisis in the context of the wider, larger crises we’ve already been living with for years, decades, reminding us of the urgency of connecting the dots – including how it’s all connected in the current context (“Sometimes I think we need this Covid crisis to tell us what are the structural things going on,” Roy mused on that point), and, crucially, trying to pinpoint solutions. There are no easy ones, that’s a fact. We need nothing short of a radical system change. But the Green New Deal could be the road map that we’ve been searching for for a long time. Or at least an important part of it. It’s hope. And that is everything in today’s world.
  8. Why Women Will Save the Planet by Friends of the Earth and C40 Cities – is a book that’s been sitting on my too-read bookshelf (or one of a number now!), and now I’ve finally dusted it off. It’s another timely reminder of everything discussed above, and more. With 50th anniversary of Earth Day just gone, and lots of accompanying calls to focus on the other, perhaps larger emergency facing us – at least as much as we’re focusing on dealing with the coronavirus, I realised that now is the time to read it. And perhaps there is another reason I’m gravitating towards this topic more than ever now… The forced isolation has strangely proven a much needed time to reflect for me, personally. I was reminded of why I first became an activist, of the things that I care about that I have perhaps not paid enough attention to recently. Perhaps it’s high time for me to get back to my roots?
  9. A House of Her Own by Krista Tippett with Sandra Cisneros – another podcast. “Solitude is sacred” Cisneros says in the interview to the young students asking for her tops tips for life. But I feel like this is a way of looking at these days of forced self-isolation we’d be blessed to remember. I try. It’s not always easy. I was reminded of this in a comment when I wrote about A Room of Our Own in the first piece in the series. But the solitude can be an opportunity if seen this way – at least for those of us with the privilege to isolate safely in our own homes – both in life generally and in these times of crisis, particularly. This conversation is also a timely reminder of the transformative power of poetry, reading and writing. Which leads me nicely to the next position on my list:
  10. Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde – a book that has provided a shining beacon of hope at previous times in my life that I needed it. So I decided this was another good one to dust off. A combination of prose and poetry – it also seems to be the perfect reading at this junction in my life. I just fell in love with poetry for the first time during these last few months. Even though I have always admired Lorde’s work, as it’s intensely, powerfully political, I never much understood the point of poetry – not just hers, I mean in general – before. I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to say the same things in a more straightforward manner? But these days, for some reason, all of a sudden it provides both solace and a much needed reminder of everything that’s precious in life. And what’s not – the things that perhaps we pay too much attention to in the everyday, in ‘normal’ times. “It is a waste of time hating a mirror / or its reflection / instead of stopping the hand / that makes glass with distortions” (Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap).
  11. The Virago Book of Witches by Shahrukh Husain – a book that is “a celebration of anger, tomfoolery, fun, strife and victory – because the witch never really disappears”. A world to escape into, for those moments when constantly thinking of the multiple crises facing humanity right now gets a bit much. Something light for a change, in my perhaps-too-political reading list. Much needed. Nobody – as I was forced to admit to myself after one or two cases of burnout over the last few years – can keep living a 100% politically engaged life all the time, as much as we might fool ourselves sometimes that we’re strong enough. We all need a break every once in a while. And for me, this crisis has also been a time that reminded me of this. Of my own humanity…
  12. She Is Fierce by Ana Sampson – a poetry collection – all women, all stories from some of the bravest, herstory changing female voices. “For many [female poets], the act of publishing poetry was a rebellion in itself” the author says. But they did not stop there, for many have written poetry that was fiercely political and took action as well! A collection that will provide the perfect escape in this difficult period in all of our lives. But also a source of courage for any activist stuck at home right now.  I am loving it so much, I am already excited about her new collection coming out later this year, She Will Soar.

I hope you enjoy some of these titles, and that they will go some way to helping you through this crisis, as they did for me.

And to end on – a gentle, but passionate, heartfelt reminder – please buy any of these books from your local independent or radical bookshop, and NOT Amazon! Let’s support our local bookstores, so that they can survive through this difficult time. Let’s make sure we don’t wake up to a world without independent bookshops tomorrow…

And here are some links that can help with that: 

Alliance of Radical Booksellers list

Books Are my Bag bookshop finder

Indie Bookshops map

London Bookshop Crawl virtual tours

 

 

 

 

Reads for times of crisis pt. 2

Photo courtesy of Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Photo courtesy of Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Inspired by messages from friends following my previous post on the subject of how to stay hopeful in times of crisis, I have decided to make it into a series! I was pleasantly surprised, as I was finding new things that inspired me at every turn, once I started looking. And then, when I published the first piece, I received even more inspiration from friends and colleagues. Leading me to new and unexpected places of discovery, some which I already know will change my life, and some which will be bright guiding stars for years to come. I hope, with this series, to share some of this feeling of hope and inspiration that has kept me going through this highly confusing and anxiety provoking time.

So here’s my second list of recommended reads for times of crisis. Hope it helps others find their way through the darkness of these times. Starting, again, with my favourite author of the day:

  1. The Impossible has already happened by Rebecca Solnit – where she tells us that we can use this dark moment for good. “One of our main tasks now – especially those of us who are not sick, are not frontline workers, and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties – is to understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible” Solnit says here. Times of crisis are times of change, there is no doubt about that. What we do with that fact is up to us. There is the potential to use it for good. Or we can just let things play out, which would likely mean change for worse. The choice is ours. I also listened to Solnit’s conversation with Krista Tippett, Falling Together, on On Being today, and, even though it was originally recorded in 2016, in the face of another grave crisis, which reminded me just how important human connection is today. I believe that if we join the two together – our ability to connect and to discover the potential of collaborating in times like these – we can achieve things that we perhaps thought impossible before.
  2. The Universe in Verse by Maria Popova – a tribute to science through poetry, and to the beautiful interconnections between their two worlds. This is an annual charity event set up by Popova in 2017. Recordings of the previous 3 years can be watched on Brainpickings. This year’s event, will be livestreamed free all over the world, tonight! “An adaptation, an experiment, a Promethean campfire for the collective imagination,” in her own words, and all donations will support Pioneer Works, which normally hosts the show, but, of course, had to close this year before it was due to go live again. Popova’s Brainpickings was one of those literary finds that saved the year for me. I felt like I found a soulmate. Hope you manage to catch it tonight and it does some of that to you to. It’s an amazing feeling.
  3. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – is a novel, but for Arundhati Roy, a committed activist, every personal story is a story of struggle. And, quite openly, activism is also a strong theme throughout. I feel like this is why it speaks so strongly to me, personally – if I ever become a fiction writer, politics would also seep in through that writing, whether I willed it or not. It’s just who I am. And it’s what Roy personifies in her writing. The age old feminist adage of personal is political. Roy has been heavily criticised for it, told she lacks subtlety as a writer. But can we really afford to worry about subtlety when the world is burning around us? In her own words:“I want to wake the neighbours, that’s my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes.” I can’t see a fault in that!
  4. A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit – similarly to Hope in the Dark, Solnit provides an alternative way of looking at disaster. A glimpse into our immense ability to respond in humane ways to extremely testing situations. She argues that this suggests a less Darwinian and more hopeful interpretation of what human nature is. The potential of this take on humanity cannot be overstated. It creates an opening – one through which we can envision societies that are cooperative, supportive and community-centred, successfully, I might add.  It offers us “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become” according to Solnit.
  5. Wilding by Isabella Tree – was recommended to me by a Feminist Library friend, as a good read for this time. A very different kind of reading to all the other, more political stories that tend to dominate my reading lists. However, not apolitical, if you ask me, not in a world that so much needs an alternative way of living, and soon, with multiple and impending crises, now right on our doorstep – with perhaps most of them all, the climate crisis. A perspective of a new way of building a world, a greener world, or at least a microcosm of it, giving us hope for more. Hope that it can be done. That another world is possible, as Roy famously put it.
  6. Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay – is a timely reminder. There has never been a more urgent time to hear this call. Our imperialist, capitalist, neoliberal ways of being in the world have brought us to this point – where we might be seemingly dealing with one crisis right at this moment, but that really is just an illusion. Capitalism has made the crisis of the pandemic so much worse for so many most affected communities around the world. And capitalism is a disease that’s spread throughout the world thanks to imperialism. This call needs to be heard today! We urgently need to figure out ow to need to build another reality on the ashes of this crisis. But can we do this without understanding our own history – the building blocks of our current reality, as well as where we really come from – the (her)stories that have not been told, or outright stolen from us, stories of resistances untold or buried, to take away our hope?
  7. Is ‘Just Being’ Worthy Right Now? by Krista Tippett – not a read, a podcast. From my favourite series (in fact, the first podcast series that’s ever pulled me in, and only very recently, during this crisis, and totally now I’m hooked!) – On Being. Helps us question what in means to be ‘worthy’ or ‘just be’. In the context of today, but also questioning the concept in the wider context of our capitalist society. And the incredible potential of what thinking about it and rethinking how we see ourselves in this context has. Tippett says: “use this moment… – all the possibility of being active and showing your worth by doing – where that has fallen away. It is a great gift to yourself, and, also to the world — not just the immediate world around you right now, but the world that we want to make, moving out of this — to get settled inside yourself; to know what it means to befriend reality; to figure out how to stay soft.” This extraordinary time is a time of change for us all. Let’s use it wisely. Sitting still – o ‘just being’ can also be part of that.
  8. After the End by Clare Mackintosh – the rare novel on my list. A story of making the most difficult decisions in the most dreadful circumstances most of us can imagine. And yet dubbed “the most hopeful novel you will read this year” by reviewers. Obviously a must-read. Even more so today than ever. Can be emotionally difficult too. So comes with a warning. And also making me reflect, while writing this, how we often, as human beings, take more emotionally the personal story of one writer, than a public story of suffering of thousands. Perhaps this is another reason to read something like this now. We can relate more to a story like this, meaning it can make more of an impact than even the most brilliantly written and most urgent call to political action and social change.
  9. Readings by Writers with Pam Houston – weekly readings during the time of crisis, supporting writers who are unable to do live events promoting their books, and have had to cancel book launches, in this difficult times. The one last week was with my favourite writer these days, Rebecca Solnit, which alerted me to this wonderful platform and project. You can watch the readings live every Thursday, or access all archival footage on their website. It was also great to find out that they’re doing poetry Mondays throughout April. Inspiring to see how many inventive ways people are finding to connect and support each other through these trying times.
  10. The Pandemic is a Portal by Arundhati Roy – yes, again, but this one is a conversation, with Imani Perry, by Haymarket Books. It’s another way to digest the powerful message without actually having to read. As the days under lockdown go by, I have been finding it more and more difficult to focus on reading, with anxiety levels gradually increasing. Thankfully, other modes of learning on how to stay positive and hopeful have been forthcoming, and more and more helpful in the circumstances. “This is a very immediate moment that we do have to seize, because the plans to do otherwise are on” Roy says, reminding us that this time can be our moment to radically change the world for the better, but also that the consequences of not doing so can be truly terrible. It is in times like these that great change happens, for better or worse.

This part is much shorter than the first one. Inspiration has not been as forthcoming in the past couple of weeks as it was before. Partly because the isolation has finally caught up with me, mentally. But I know everyone is feeling it. Whatever our individual circumstances, none of us can escape the impact of the stark changes to our lives created by the pandemic.

I was particularly grateful to find the podcasts that I found in the earlier weeks, as they kept me going through moments when reading felt like just a bit too much effort. I hope that some of these positions help you keep going in a small way as well.

Please don’t forget to support independent bookshops if you’re ordering books – particularly at this very difficult time for most of them, as most of them had to close. The Indie Bookshops website has a great map that they’ve been updating throughout the crisis. And if you want to support radical bookshops, here’s a list of those as well. There’s also a book that explores exactly why this is important. London Bookshop Crawl is doing virtual tours these days.

 

Resources for hope in times of crisis

IMG_20200404_181648

There is a massive shift happening globally right now, with people in the left movement asking questions of how we can best get through this crisis, and finding that the same message is coming through, regardless of where they are: “We’re not going back to business as usual after this!”

The other night, I tuned into an online teach-in organised by a US-based organisation, The Rising Majority, with Naomi Klein, Angela Davis, and 10,000 others! My favourite message of the night came from Naomi Klein – unsurprisingly, as she’s always incredibly quotable – who said:

“Our job (right now) is to open the door of radical possibility as wide as possible”

I feel inspired these days, by the way that people around the world are finding new avenues for coming together to think our way out of the crisis and into a better world than before. But many other factors are affecting my cautious optimism these days. One of them being feminist literature. I just finished reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and I was so inspired by her writing that I have shared this information with dozens of others by now.

And then I thought: I want to be able to spread this message of hope as far as possible. Hence this blog post.

This is my list of inspiring reads that I found incredibly helpful in this time of global crisis, despair, and finding hope in unlikely places. I do hope that it goes some way to helping others find some light in these dark and strange times too:

  1. The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit – takes first place because it was the book that I read in the early days of this crisis and I found incredibly enlightening in this time when I needed some light in my life. The story of a very painful period in her life is intertwined with fairytales, creating a dreamy landscape of surviving while discovering key truths of life through adversity. Hope can come from unlikely places. “Trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming” Solnit says here. I tend to agree. I used to despair at the thought that humanity seems to need a crisis to wake up. Today, I choose to feel hopeful in the face of this sentiment. I have to. Hope is a necessary ingredient of survival.
  2. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – arguably. One of the comments that I received when I posted about it in the last few days was about how the person writing it wished they weren’t stuck in their room right now. And I can totally understand. It’s a testing time for us all. But another way to look at it is that we have come a long way – although we have a long way to go still – and this is a time for those of us who do have rooms of our own when we can be extra creative, use the extra time that we’ve got to learn something new, make positive change, find new ways to connect. And connecting globally has never been easier. Not for all, I am well aware. But for those of us who can, it’s worth reminding ourselves: I am afraid it will not be taken seriously.” Woolf wrote in her diary just before the publication… so there is obviously no telling what could come out of our creativity at this difficult and change-provoking time!
  3. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit – a book that fell into my lap, accidentally, while I was in the middle of reading the other title by her. It was offered by the publisher of the Polish translation as a free book during the time of crisis, and a friend sent me the link, just as I was halfway through The Faraway.  I thought I must have it to read next. If there was ever an ironically perfect time to read this book, it is now. This book is built on the premise that: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” And it builds up a (pretty convincing, I think) picture of collective hope through action.
  4. Brain Pickings by Maria Popova – a blog rather than a book, but one that I came across when following up on a quote by her that I found in Hope in the Dark: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is is naivete.” – and then I proceeded to discover a whole world of hope there that Popova has created, which seems perfect for this stark time of confusion and despair. A little bit of heaven. A retreat for the soul. Or, in her own words: “Calibration and consolation for those moments when it seems impossible that we should ever again recompose the world’s broken fragments into a harmonious whole.” In her latest, she also recommends another one of Virginia Woolf’s – To the Lighthouse – as another good read for a time like this. I have to admit, I haven’t read it, but Popova describes it as “the kind of book that leaves you feeling nothing less than reborn.” Sounds tempting to me.
  5. Fairytales for Emergencies by Rebecca Solnit – if you think fairytales are for children, I did too not so long ago, trust me! But Solnit brings her signature storytelling style into an accessible (video) format here, and tells the tales from a new perspective – to help shine a new light of hope onto what’s happening in the world today. She actually spends relatively little time on the fairytales themselves, focusing instead on the universal messages that can carry us all through this storm. Her hope is palpable and contagious: “I think the world is changing and when we come out of  our homes we’ll be very different people in some very important ways.” 
  6. Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal – I have seen this book in the Feminist Library bookshop some time ago now, but tended to, somewhat reluctantly, ignore it. I have a reading list that is long enough already, I thought, and I don’t have the time to add more. It was always a ‘nice to have’ rather than a must-read before. Until now. Now, suddenly, it seems like the perfect time for it. I’m yet to start, but it’s definitely next on my list now. I have read a few other articles in the past few weeks that spell out the same message: that it is through human connection that we find happiness, rather than through capitalist individualistic gratification. But the message has never been more crucial, as we are seeing the capitalist system crumble right in front of our eyes in the face of a global health crisis. And we need to connect not just with each other, but also the dots so that we can all unite to replace it with a better system – one in service of all peoples, not just big money.   
  7. Recollections of My Non-existence by Rebecca Solnit – “she lights the way, holding up her experience, her insight, that others might find her, and find hope” in the words of Florence Welch. It has just landed on my doorstep, so I can’t recommend it from my own experience. But it was recommended by a Feminist Library friend when we were talking about what we were reading to help us cope in this time of crisis, and Welch’s words seem to confirm my suspicions – similarly as in The Faraway Nearby, Solnit uses her experiences of life’s challenges to create a story of finding hope through a time of difficulty. It is also a story of her early days trying to make it as a woman writer in a man’s world, which makes it perhaps the most explicitly feminist one of her titles recommended here. (Yes, a lot of Solnit, I know! One might say that I’ve become obsessed, but I honestly think that she’s the perfect writer for today. I’m not even trying to hide it.)
  8. Just Kids by Patti Smith – a story of youth, of dreams, of naivete, but also of survival and, ultimately, making it. A memoir of her early days, when she had no money and no name that anyone recognised. It might be a personal story, but it’s one of making it against all odds, triumphing as a poor woman in a man’s world. Smith’s writing is timeless, poetic and it speaks to me like few others do. Devotion is my personal favourite of hers though – although the story is much more poetic than triumphant, her writing is to die for. “Inspiration is the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.” It’s one of those books that helped me through some hard moments – when Smith’s unique ability to turn despair and darkness into art was exactly what I needed to learn. And I think that it’s a lesson that’s even more precious to me today.
  9. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou – or literally anything by her! The power of both her writing and her conviction is as inspirational as they come. There is also a great documentary about Maya Angelou on Netflix too. In moments, wonderful – especially when Maya Angelou herself speaks. It’s a voice of wisdom and hope. There are few voices as powerful as Maya Angelou. Also recommend listening to On the Pulse of Morning – a poem she wrote for the inauguration for president Clinton – full of hope, but also brave words of both call to action and warning. “You, created only a little lower than / The angels, have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness / Have lain too long / Facedown in ignorance.” You can listen to it on YouTube.     
  10. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – despite of the horror of the circumstances in which it was written, and the knowledge of Anne’s tragic end, the young author still manages to keep the message of hope throughout: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.” It is a story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit through adversity. And a very young spirit at that. It forces us to ask ourselves: who are we to despair if this young Jewish girl in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland managed to stay hopeful?

And if you have been encouraged, to feel more hopeful, you might ask yourself, as I have been over the past few weeks, what to do with it in this uncertain time. And so my list continues with some suggested titles that might help answer that question:

  1. The Pandemic is a Portal by Arundhati Roy – who is my all-time favourite feminists to quote as she famously said “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” I have used this quote more times than I can count. It is plastered above my desk. And it has been one of those thoughts that has stayed with me over the years, helping me stay relatively sane in this crazy world. But here she writes specifically in the current context of the global pandemic, and she still manages to come out with a strong message of hope. And, needless to say, the message is decidedly political. Well worth a read.
  2. Revolution in the Age of Social Media by Linda Herrera – this book is based on the story of the the Egyptian uprising of 2011 and the role that social media played in it. And yet, I find that it has a new power now. With more or less the whole world on lockdown, we, the movements, have been challenged to find new ways to connect and organise. More than ever, we are reliant on the internet to build our movement. It offers both opportunities and challenges. Perhaps the greatest of them all being that we could find a way to a new, global movement for system change. But can we to do this reliant on a tool situated within the current corrupt system? This is the book that attempts to provide us some priceless lessons to answer this exact question. Available as a free download on Academia.edu. 
  3. The Will to Change by Adrienne Rich – or just her poetry, full stop. Political, eye-opening, change-making, hopeful – called a precursor to a new type of poet, ‘the poetics of becoming’, ‘poetry of ideas’, reflective of the age in which it came to be. Poetry, in the world of Adrienne Rich, is, or has the potential, a responsibility even to be, a call to action: “In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.” in her own words. And I have been encouraged to hope also by seeing just how much new creativity the lockdown has provoked.
  4. The Inner Life of Rebellion by Krista Tippett, in conversation with Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin – a podcast (although the transcript can be read on the website as well). On the human aspect of rebellion. Martin says: “You should be able to honour your own anger.” But then continues with a timely reminder of the importance of community, empathy and self-care as an activist. Especially in the face of burnout, something that many of us who are activists know all too well. And particularly living in a time of so many crises – phenomena that so implore us to action that we often forget to take enough moments to stop, think and breathe. “Doing social justice entails a huge psychological risk” (C. Martin), but it’s not to say we shouldn’t act – it’s a call to remember our own humanity while we do, to connect with our community, and to take time to process before we do act. Perhaps now is a time to step back and reflect as much as it is for planning and organising rebellions? It also reminds us that the revolution is unlikely to happen overnight or to solve all of our problems if it does. We have to be patient.
  5. The Will to Change by bell hooks – as always a visionary, in this book bell hooks convinces us, feminists, that men too can change. It is not a book about crisis as we see it unfolding on the world today, but it’s definitely one about finding hope and ‘the will to change’, even in the most unlikely of places. About the crisis of masculinity, and about our fear of men, and how we can overcome it. I have to admit that I found the book challenging – evidence for the conviction that hooks expresses is often hard to come by, even in today’s world. And yet, she makes a compelling case. I do share her hope – I believe we need to, for a chance of a better world – and I deeply want to share her conviction. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge facing us today: finding ways to retrieve our belief that humanity really is capable of change – and then, and only then, we can work on ways of implementing this new belief system. Or in her own words: “Many of us have lived the truth that recognising the ways we are wounded is often a simpler process than finding and sustaining a practice of healing.”   
  6. The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt – more philosophically, on the human condition, the power of action and the creative possibilities of being human. On the sheer power and boundless potential that lies in us, as human beings. A perfect read for today, especially if you’re feeling a bit hopeless. For it exposes the endless possibility of change and action in this grave time: “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” 
  7. Feminism and the Contradictions of Oppression by Caroline Ramazanoglu – talks about the seemingly irreconcilable differences between various types of feminisms and attempts to reconcile them. This is a textbook and so might be a bit heavy for some readers, especially today. If you’re in need of a lighter read today, it’s totally understandable. But for anyone who’s trying to imagine how we might arrive in a better world at the end of this troubling period, despite all the contradictions between the different movements, it should be an illuminating read. It instils much needed belief that working together is possible, against even the most seemingly incompatible differences. Perhaps it could even be argued that we have to learn to embrace those differences if we’re to arrive at solutions that really work.
  8. Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai – another powerful autobiography, and a story of struggle, activism and positive change through adversity. Maathai was at least as much a political activist as she was a distinguished writer, and the message of her story is political too. It’s a call to action: “We owe it to the present, and future generations, to rise up and walk.” It’s an autobiography, yet the writing is less personal than clearly, unapologetically, political in its intent.
  9. The Identities of Persons by Amelie Rorty – another one on the human condition, a perfect read for today if you like philosophy. But also a great one for these cloudy days, for it proposes humans are infinitely capable of change. Combined with a reading of any one of Solnit’s countless stories, it provides a compelling narrative: it is through the stories that we tell ourselves of ourselves – and that is the way that we mould our worlds. Stories are powerful. Or in the words of the author herself: “Humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves.”
  10. Had I Known by Barbara Ehrenreich – a collection of some of the best essays from one of the most revered thinkers of our time. It is also another important reminder and a warning to us: this strange and confusing time can be seen as a time of opportunity, but it can be seen as such by both sides. Our story can go either way at this point. As history shows us – change is inevitable but progress is not. We have an opportunity today, to use the crisis to rethink the ways that things have been done so far, on a global and unprecedented scale. We must stay hopeful in this time of great challenges, but we absolutely have to avoid confusing that with being naive. It’s our duty to act, Ehrenreich reminds us, but let’s learn from history while we’re at it and avoid making the same mistakes.
  11. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – it seems it would be wrong not to mention the climate crisis somewhere in this list before finishing it. Rachel Carson writes beautifully about the natural world, and here the focus is on the danger that humans have posed to nature on their way to ‘progress’ in its economically-focused definition. Writing that sparked the global environmental movement. It also reminds us it’s important to challenge unquestioning commitment to the progress of science and technology as we know it. It is crucial that we question everything in the current system if we want to change it, or even better, replace it with something else altogether. Another good one to read on this subject is Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature. And it is available online as free download.
  12. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein – read the book or watch the film. Or both! It’s about finding hope through lessons from the environmental movement across the globe – the most affected and oppressed communities fighting back. Finding inspiration and power to fight back in the most unlikely places. I think it has to be read alongside The Shock Doctrine at this point in time – which is another timely warning. Capitalism is not asleep while we plot its overthrow. While we think about how we can use this crisis to change/dismantle the current system of oppression, capitalism is doing some thinking of its own. We shouldn’t forget that.
  13. Vintage Didion by Joan Didion – a collection of some the best writing by a woman dubbed one of the greatest American writers. And another stark warning to remind us in this potentially culture defining moment: we need to find ways to stay hopeful, but not uncritically so. History teaches us better. If we listen that is. When combined with Ehrenreich and Klein, makes for more than a compelling case for change-making based on careful learning from the past, on an understanding that progress is never straightforward, but change is always possible. Especially in moments like this.
  14. The Small Work in the Great Work by Victoria Safford – an essay that opens us up to the boundless potential of this moment. What history teaches is that times like these have the potential to be absolutely transformative, to wake us up, on a massive scale. We have the potential in this moment to create a new world, with countless thousands waking up from the lull of capitalism. But we need a vision. Or in her own words: “Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is (…) I am interested in hope on this side of the grave — for me there is no other kind — and in that tidal wave of justice that could rise up if only we would let it.” 
  15. This is Our (Caring) Revolution by Ai-jen Poo in conversation with Krista Tippett – a podcast (but again, can be read as a transcript as well, if you prefer. I find podcasts unexpectedly relaxing these days). I think it’s a great one to end on. On the importance of listening, caring and inclusion. Listening as a revolutionary act. I don’t know if there’s ever been a more crucial time for this message to be heard. “All of us need to understand that we have a profound set of challenges and inequities that we have to deal with and transform, but we have to do it with a boundless sense of compassion and humanity” (Ai-jen Poo). If we’re to build a new global movement to get us through this crisis, and to build it by finding new ways to connect and communicate, we need to hear this message, desperately.

I want to return to my favourite author of the day, and end with another one of her quotes, which I think, as so many others used here, summarises the reasons that justify my, somewhat cautious, admittedly, optimism today:

“The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,”

Rebecca Solnit

While the task of ‘inventing the world while no one looks’ might seem a bit tricky in the era of internet-facilitated rebellion, there is no doubt that there is no way any of us could know all the different ways that people are waking up to the fact that the current system is broken beyond repair these days. It is also a timely reminder that we’re are not alone in this. There are movements around the world thinking of new ways of being and acting right now. Let’s take a moment to embrace the immense potential of that thought. There is no telling what tomorrow could bring.

My list is a bit thin on fiction, I know. I’d like to do better, but I’m not a very big reader of fiction, so I would appreciate any pointers.

I also realised that this article was going to be much longer than initially anticipated about half way through writing it, as inspiration led to more inspiration. So I want to apologise that some must-reads are not included. Perhaps this will become an unexpected new series… 

Feminist Spaces in Crisis: Italy

I’ve written a lot about the difficulties feminist spaces face locally (London), but the other day I have received a troubling email on the subject from an Italian friend highlighting the problem is far from limited to the UK. On some level, I knew that of course, having worked in this area for a few years now, but it is always difficult to write about what we personally don’t know and haven’t experienced. Yet, having received that message, I found it more difficult to do nothing. So this is my humble attempt to support the Italian sisters’ struggle by sharing their story from far away. I will let them judge how correct a reflection this is.

Lucha y Siesta is a women’s shelter – a safe space for women and children escaping violence who have nowhere else to go. It is a hybrid project between shelter house, semi-autonomous house and anti-violence centre. The problem with a general lack of spaces like these is dire in Rome, as, as the collective running the space told me – this is the only place of its kind in the whole city. Maria, from the Lucha collective says:

According to Istanbul Convention, a city as big as Rome should have about 300 places for women escaping gender violence while the actual situation is that Rome only has 22 places. Lucha y Siesta added 14 places over the last 12 years – and still does, because we cannot stop dealing with women in danger and in need just because someone told us so.”

Now even this one space is one too many according to the city authorities, it appears! Their building is due to go up for sale next month. On 7th April Lucha’s home will be auctioned off in a bankruptcy sale in order to save Atac spa..!

On Feb 25th they began a permanent picket, despite threats by the city authorities that they would leave Lucha without light and water – while 5 women and kids were still in the House. But for the third time since this war intensified (about 2 years ago now), solidarity and sorority won, and thanks to their community’s support they managed to change the authorities’ mind.

And so, for now at least, Lucha y Siesta is yet again full of people and activities. They have become a symbol of resistance in their struggle against gentrification, neoliberalism and capitalism. (It might also be worth adding that it comes at a time when – for the first time ever – the city is lead by a woman, Mayor Virginia Raggi.)

But Lucha is much more than just a shelter campaigning to stay open out of necessity. Although hospitality and anti-violence activities are their core, Lucha y Siesta’s mission goes far beyond. It is a community that works to spread the feminist message. Their work includes prevention, education and cooperation with other feminist groups.

“Feminism, autonomy and self-determination are the principles we build our method to deal with male violence on.” says Maria

And, last but not least, creativity is at their core – and this has been one of the foundations their campaign  to save the space has been built on. Just to give one (of many) examples: last year, with the help of Restiamo Cyborg Posse many statues in Rome were covered at night with light signs with the message: Lucha y Siesta cannot close / Let’s buy it together.

“Diamo Lucha alla città”Give Lucha to the city is the name of the campaign (and goal). The campaign has been quite successful already, but they still need raise about £200,000 more and save the building.

Please support their crowdfunder now and help spread the word here!  

 

The Magic of Feminist Spaces

WomanhousePRFInalLast week, I spent a couple of unexpectedly inspiring days invigilating an exhibition that my work was, somewhat accidentally, featured in. I say that not because I didn’t want to be there or because I don’t appreciate my own work. It’s just that I’d never looked at myself as an artist before that, so this wonderful turn of events came as quite a bit of a surprise to me. An undeniably nice one thought!

The exhibition was feminist, in the best sense of the word – it was top to bottom on a feminist theme, almost exclusively by women, with a nod to our foremothers; which is where I come in. It was dedicated to women who, in 1972, set up the first ever feminist exhibition – WomanHouse. Which, in turn, inspired a wave of similar projects across the world, coming to the UK in 1974, and setting up in south London as A Woman’s Place.
I joined the exhibition to talk about A Woman’s Place, to add a nod to our British second wave sisters (you can read the piece I wrote for the exhibition here).

The latest rendition of WomanHouse in Hackney last week was marvellous – thought-provoking, emotional, honest, bold and inspiring. Our foremothers would have been proud. And somehow, during my time there, something, yet again, unexpectedly amazing happened. Something that often happens when women get together in a physical space with enough time to talk openly and inspire each other. Something that I often witness, because I work at the Feminist Library, but that still takes me by surprise every time – and it does other women even more so, because most are not lucky enough to be working in a feminist space.

A group of us sat on the steps of the House and talked for hours during the exhibition. This group of women did not know each other beforehand – a mix of artists and visitors with a wide range of backgrounds and interests. And yet, somehow in the midst of all this, magic happened: we inspired each other, each of us in different ways, yet we all came away feeling lifted like we haven’t been in a while; some with new inspiring projects to take forwards, others with spontaneous and bold new holiday plans, others still with potentially lifechanging reflections.

I haven’t felt this inspired in ages – I have been writing nearly non-stop for days since! Catching up on months of very rough ideas that never made it onto a page until now, having been missing that final spark of energy and inspiration that manages to get them there.

And this is exactly what happens when women get together and inhibitions are lifted – free to express their thoughts, frustrations and ideas. This is why physical spaces are so important. And that’s why the feminist project continues – until we don’t find those moments so rare… but rather an everyday occurrence.

This also reminded me of consciousness raising – a feminist method of gathering as women popular during the Second Wave of the movement and one that, while focusing on often seemingly simple, mundane even, topics, such as cooking and cleaning, was one of the key sparks that led to the ignition of the women’s movement at the time. The power of women getting together to talk about ‘the personal’ and making the connection to ‘the political’ cannot be overstated.

This is also what my piece for the exhibition was about – the importance of physical feminist spaces allowing women to get together and create something wonderfully unexpected out of nothing, herstories, and the contexts which bring them into existence and ones which facilitate their disappearance…

The almost-disappearance of this installation-exhibition from history is political.

Says Amy Tobin, who did the work of attempting to unearth it for an exhibition celebrating the herstory of A Woman’s Place a couple of years ago. This is a quote that follows me – one of those thoughts that has redirected the course of my life and I will forever be indebted to Amy for doing the work that led me to where I am today – to writing this, to talking about it every chance I get, to thinking about writing so much more on this…

Yet, at the same time, it is a painful realisation that, considering how far we’ve come, feminist spaces are still so rare as to make our encounters with them deeply profound every single time…

I have a love/hate relationship with this state of affairs – I do adore having these life-changing experiences, and sharing them with other women. Those are some of the most beautiful moments of being a feminists. But those same moments also make me realise just how far we still have to go… To get to a world in which those spaces and those experiences are everyday rather than one in a million is the goal – one that does not seem within reach just yet… But at least there are those moments that remind us that it is possible. Or in the words of one of my other favourite feminist thinkers…

Another world is possible, on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy

 

Feminist Travels… Chapter 1: Paris

As we get well into the Summer, holidays are on everyone’s mind and for a long time I have been thinking about ways of making my travels more feminist. Recently, thinking about my upcoming trip to Paris, I decided to put this into action. Here’s my feminist guide to Paris – or an attempt at it before I go at least! So do send me any suggestions you might have and I might have missed.

The idea of feminist Paris first started germinating in my mind when I heard about the scare to the Marguerite Durand library a couple of years ago – the collection was at risk of being lost, around the same time that the Feminist Library in London was, and that’s how I found out about it, as we signed the letter of support joining in our struggle to save women’s histories (or herstories). Thanks to international sisterhood and solidarity, both resources were saved in the end! And now that I’m going back to Paris – for my first ever feminist visit! – their feminist library is top of my list of things to do.

While I was exploring what else to put on my list of feminist Paris, I found feminist guided tours around the city – and I will be signing up to one of them! And a feminist Paris guide book (not in English yet, but I hope it will be when I’m there!). Most of them, however, focus on great women of Paris – which is great and, after some digging, does help with my project of trying to find more feminist spaces in Paris. I think it is worth just listing the ones here for any other feminists planning a trip to the city and interested in women’s history:

Women of Paris is run in English, so it will likely be my choice of these, and it also has a new ‘Sugar & Spice’ version – focusing on women writers and pastry shops! 🙂 Run by a Londoner, Heidi Evans, I expect it will be full of fascinating fun facts – and we can exchange tips about feminist London at the end of it! I have just checked their website again and it appears they have a new tour added – a wine tasting tour! I know what I’m booking myself onto. If you’re still not convinced, read this one woman’s entertaining account of the tour in the Independent to get more a feel for it.

On the back of this article, I have found out about Espace des Femmes – a gallery and bookstore started back in 1972, in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, by one Antoinette Fouque, as Bibliotheque des Voix – the first collection of audiobooks in France.

There are some other feminist tours to pick from – on themes from street art to matrimony! You can check them out on the Feminists of Paris pages – they seem to be the group responsible for most, if not all, of the others.*

If you prefer to explore Paris, from a feminist perspective, by yourself, I have also found out about: Musee Curie – a museum based around the lab and office that Marie Curie worked and made her discoveries in. I have also found out about another French feminist bookshop – Violette & Co.

And, last but not least, coming to Paris soon, is COVEN – a feminist (English language!) bookshop and café. I hope it starts by the time I’m there! I’m messaging them now to find out!

I have written this guide for myself, as much as for all of you, to help me get my head around all of my research into feminist Paris and to plan my trip. I’d love it if you got in touch if you wanted to add something, or tell me about any other fabulous feminist spaces to put on my radar!

*I have since been and come back from Paris. The Feminists of Paris tour I went to was the rebellious women one, and I can definitely recommend it – I have never been at a tour where so much engaging discussion was had, and it culminated in a very welcome and unexpected surprise – we visited 59 Rivoli: Aftersquat, an art space in the centre of Paris occupied by small, independent, activist artists, including – the reason for our visit – Vic-Oh, an artist inspired by women’s bodies and the vulva in particular.

We have also visited Espace des Femmes – the bookshop was all French language, so I couldn’t get reading, but the space itself was worth seeing (the shop is spacious and full of info about what’s going on in Parisian feminism), and I left with a gorgeous new tote to add to my collection 🙂 The gallery space in the back was through a really lovely small garden and in it we found an exhibition inspired by matriarchal totems – what’s not to love! On the way there, we also discovered it was based in a district that was absolutely full of small, independent art galleries, so well worth having a stroll around there if you’re into art.

I will be writing more on the theme of feminist travels, and other places, here soon. Watch this space.

In the meantime, I just found this blog also talking about feminist travel, with a focus on feminist libraries and archives around the world. Also, check out my post on feminist London and the Glorious Return of Feminist Spaces. While blogging, I am also creating an online archive on feminist spaces – please be in touch if you have something interesting to share.

The Future Will be Feminist of Not at All

Having just returned home from a feminism filled day, I was pleasantly surprised to find an extra unexpected bit of feminism waiting for me: the new – fully feminist – issue of the Red Pepper on my desk. I have just spent a whole day at Lush City, fundraising for the Feminist Library, having been prepping that morning, at the Library, and having seen a feminist window display at a pub on the corner of Southwark station (my usual route to the Library), I thought I’d had my fill of feminism for the day. But evidently not.

But then I am not writing this to tell you about my day, but because I have been noticing a shift – in the general leftist politics towards what seems like more of a seriously feminist approach. And seeing this issue on my desk seemed to be yet another proof that something new was happening. A move in the right direction, finally, I thought. I have opened the issue with anticipation – something I have not actually been able to do for quite a while, since the general left (by which I mean he left outside of feminism) had been generally speaking getting on my nerves for so long by ignoring feminist voices that I’d learned to ignore it back. I had very little patience left for anything outside of feminism.

Until now – over the past month, I felt some change in the left climate. First, I saw Naomi Klein at the Southbank for IWD, and heard her speak with reverence about the women leading the environmental movement – as well as other leftist movements – and about the necessity of a feminist approach to battle the patriarchal attitudes at the heart of planet and climate destruction. On Monday just passed I went to a conference on critical approaches to AI at Goldsmith’s and it was wonderful – most, if not all speakers, openly talking about the core value of feminism in this work, including a man who spoke of it with true reverence…honestly! And now – nearly a month on – this issue just lands on my desk.

I would normally dismiss these happenings as yet another empty attempt by the left to pull in feminists onto their side. But for the first time in years it actually seems genuine. Or at least a bit too much of a coincidence. Or perhaps I’m being naïve again… I guess we’ll see, time will tell.

Hope not. What Naomi Klein was saying really struck me – if we only have 12 years now to sort our s*** out when it comes to climate change, we need to get on with it. And if we need a serious shift away from patriarchy in order for it to happen, then really, there is not a minute to loose! The revolution was not invented yesterday, and yet, there’s so much still to do!

And then again, I read the editorial in the issue of Red Pepper that filled me with so much hope, and it didn’t seem to make the deep connection that Naomi Klein was making between climate change and patriarchy, despite being very much on the subject…

The future of humanity does not look bright without feminism, if we need to sort out patriarchy, and so fast, in order to save ourselves from a climate catastrophe… so it better be true that things are changing. Or else we’re f****d!