I love reading interesting business books. I’m not an entrepreneur myself, but there’s something about reading honest stories about the development of companies (there are plenty of books that are simply PR brochures for specific companies and I have little patience with those) and lessons from their mistakes and successes that interests me. Some favourites of mine include Starbucked, Delivering Happiness (about the shoe company Zappos), and “One Click” about Amazon. I work in the nonprofit and education sector and I think there is a great deal that public and private sector can learn from each other.
The past few months for me since November’s election results in the US have been a time of feeling bewildered, confused, angry, despondent and fiercely determined. Reading has been a way to make sense of my confusion, and here are four books that have helped me make sense of the world.
These four books are:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla
- The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
- Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak
Watch the video below for my take-aways from each book!
Today, six humans, six Muslims, were killed in a mosque in Quebec while praying their evening prayers. Many more were injured.
And in learning that news, my heart broke.
It broke thinking of families losing loved ones, thinking of people leaving their home to peacefully pray, and then never coming home again. It broke knowing that for those who lost loved ones tonight, and for Canadian Muslims who heard about these murders tonight, Islamophobia is a part of their lives. Islamophobia has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been visibly Muslim. In the seventeen years of wearing a headscarf, there have been countless unwelcome conversations about my background, countless questions laced with gender stereotyping and assumptions of oppression, many incidents of being called a terrorist at random.
I am lucky.
When I was fifteen, our local mosque burned to the ground through an arson attack. Yesterday, a mosque burned down in Southern Texas. Today, lives were cut short in Quebec. In the US, people from predominately Muslim countries are being banned from entering the country, and across the country, people are organizing.
Organizing, because Islamophobia is enabled by everyday environments, by government policy, by unchallenged moments. Islamophobia is emboldened by moments when harassment takes place, and nobody stands up to challenge aggression. Islamophobia is emboldened by organizational environments and workplaces in which faith is tolerated, but no resources are devoted to making the workplace a faith friendly place. Islamophobia festers when Islam is treated as a dirty word and faith is a solely private affair that holds no relation to the overall operations of an organization, neighbourhood or city. Organizational and institutional indifference and/or Islamophobia sends a message that faith, and those who hold faith identities do not matter. In such a context, hate is allowed to grow.
“Yaw nodded. He sat in his chair at the front of the room and looked at all the young men.”This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children would tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on. But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories. Kojo Nyarko says that when the warriors came to the village their coats were red, but Kwame Adu says that they were blue. Whose story do we believe then?”
The boys were silent. They started at him, waiting.
“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”(Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, 2016, p.226)
“How could he explain to Marjorie that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance. He had only heard talk of his great- grandpa H from Ma Willie, but those stories were enough to make him weep and to fill him with pride. Two Shovel H they had called him. But what had they called his father or his father before him? What of the mothers? They had been products of their time, and walking in Birmingham now, Marcus was an accumulation of these times. That was the point.” ((Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, 2016, p.296)
There are some books that shake the very foundation of your being, and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is one of those books for me. This book is an unexpected jewel. I started reading “Homegoing” yesterday and finished it today, because every time I put the book down my hands were eager to pick the book up again. The book is about two half sisters named Esi and Effia who do not know each other and who live in different villages. Effia is married off to the British governor James Collins and lives in the Cape Coast castle, Esi is kidnapped and sent to the Cape Coast castle dungeons before being sold into slavery. In the Cape Coast castle slaves are received and sold, and during Effia’s first night in the castle, she asks her husband about the crying she hears, and asks if there are people below. She quickly realises that this is not something she is allowed to talk or ask about. From the stories of these two sisters, “Homegoing” follows the two families of these two sisters, generation after generation, in Ghana and in America, through slavery, through the slave trade in Ghana, through the official end of slavery, through the actual continuation of slavery, through segregation, until the present day.
“For most immigrants, moving to a new country is an act of faith. Even if you’ve heard stories of safety, opportunity and prosperity, it’s still a leap to move yourself from your own language, people and country. Your own history. What if the stories weren’t true? What if you couldn’t adapt? What if you weren’t wanted in the new country.” (Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star, 2016, p.34)
Is there a word for reverse migration? If so, I want to know it. We moved from South Africa to Canada a little over a month ago, and leaving home to settle back home has been challenging in ways that have taken me by surprise. Not that I’m not glad to be back – it’s wonderful to take transit and walk and visit the library again, but in my time away, I got used to not being a minority all the time. I got accustomed to being asked where I was from because of my Canadian accent instead of being asked where I’m from and where I was born because I wear a headscarf. I got used to not having to think about where I was going to pray, and instead devoting that brain space to move beyond accommodation to think about the kind of Muslim I want to be. For so many reasons, the first few weeks back were very challenging, but we’re slowly making Canada home again and figuring out who we are individually and who we are as a family in what feels like a new place.
If 2017 is any indication so far, this is the year where we all need to be reading diverse stories and doing as much as possible. And towards that end, in the past few weeks I read two books about immigration that I very much want to share and discuss with you.
In a way, I met my husband because of Zadie Smith. I used to run a bookclub in Toronto, and 2 years ago, our December book of choice was Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”. Close friends had raved about Smith and talked about “White Teeth” as one of their favourite books, but I had never read any of her work before. Despite my excitement to read her for the first time though, I hated the book and gave up after 100 pages. So the first time I didn’t finish our book club selection was the first time my now husband attended the Seriously Planning bookclub.
Yesterday I started and finished “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau. Guillbeau visited every country in the world by the time he was thirty-five (a fact he reminds readers of every few pages) and the book is supposed to be an exploration of how you too can find your own quest. According to Guillebeau, quests are projects that have a clear goal, a specific end point, and a defined set of milestones. Examples of quests are Guillebeau’s journey to visit every country in the world, a project to visit every basilica in the US, a project to walk across the US, a quest to never travel by car again, and the list goes on. This could have been an interesting read, but instead is just a poorly written book with no critical reflection and or ability to mention any African country without using stereotypes or using actual country names. When he talks about North America, he mentions specific town and city names (Manitoba, St. Louis etc) when he talks about an African country, he simply talks about visiting Africa. Here are (some) examples:
In addition, this book is completely devoid of any critical reflection or analysis of what it means to do a “quest”, and who gets to travel and pursue ridiculous journeys. There is no racial analysis, no discussion of privilege, and no examination of whether it is a good idea to seek meaning that is missing from your everyday life in a “faraway locale.” The chapters on creating personal lists and goal setting are interesting, but the flaws in this book make it impossible to take his advice seriously. Guillebeau says everyone can travel anywhere as long as they can save at least $2 a day, and seems unaware that that isn’t a measure that everyone can meet. Poverty and bills and responsibilities are not important variables as to whether or not someone can leave their life and go, in this book travel and adventure simply require that you are uncomfortable with your life and want to make a change in order to go out and do these things. He does spend a bit of time saying that you can do quests in the way that is meaningful for you, but he gives unrealistic examples of scaling down. For instance, if you feel like you can’t visit all the countries, 30 countries is pretty good too!
What isn’t discussed is that there are good and bad reasons to do a quest. He speaks of a friend who “after years of debauchery as a New York City nightclub promoter” finds his calling bringing clean water to Africa. He tells the story of another person who wants to connect with different cultures and decides to cook a different dish for her family from each country in the world. The ethics and validity of both of these projects are very different because the reasons for each project is very different, but there is little analysis in this book of personal motivations or broader political implications of the quests that people undertake. What does it mean to support oppressive regimes through travel? This a question that should be talked about because of the stories Guillebeau chooses to include, but isn’t discussed at all.
Last year I read “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” a delightful fictional read about a man who walks 500 miles across England to visit a colleague who is dying of cancer. The journey heals his marriage and his life, but he travels across small towns of England in his own country. Harold Fry’s journey is charming and sweet, this book is the opposite of that