This Was Not Your Year
Or Was It? Books and Media That Helped Me Understand and Cope in 2020
In January 2020 I had big plans.
They did not entail extensive couch-sitting, news-avoiding, four-walls staring. They did not include Zoom weddings (2) and Zoom funerals (2). They did not include non-travel, or housing displacement, or a full-time job.
But they did include reading more. And this year, I read a lot.
My reading practice is semi-obsessive and immersive; I find myself interested in a topic, and explore it through fiction, non-fiction, podcasts, Twitter, the news, academia, movies, YouTube, and anything else I can get my hands on. I want to understand something deeply, refracted through different lenses. This is part of what makes me a good strategist, and writer, and may be why I got a little 3-D printed trophy from McKinney for being the Cultural Connoisseur.
So rather than a list of books, here are two of the topics that captivated me in 2020.
If you didn’t examine your role in the racial dynamics of your culture, did you even 2020? I read a lot about Black America: How To be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad, poems and essays by Audre Lorde, the Seeing White series podcast.
But I also wanted to better understand my own racial experience. As Dutch-Indonesian, I’ve always had a fraught relationship with identity in America. In the Netherlands, my background is common. The tension of the colonial past is writ large by authors like Adriaan van Dis and the original, Multatuli, whose book Max Havelaar caused as much of a reckoning with the Dutch colonial enterprise as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did on the American meatpacking industry, or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was on the environmental movement.
But I live here, in America, where Asian heritage is a whole other mess. Many of my friends are Asian American, my husband is Filipino, and I worked with Asian American and immigrant communities throughout my 20s. And yet, the idea of an Asian American identity does not fit me comfortably.
As Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings:
“Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity. In the popular imagination, Asian Americans are all high-achieving professionals. But in reality, this is the most economically divided group in the country, a tenuous alliance of people with roots from South Asia to East Asia to the Pacific Islands, from tech millionaires to service industry laborers. How do we speak honestly about the Asian American condition—if such a thing exists?”
The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee details how an uneasy singular identity was formed from a dozen cultures, many with deep animosities, based on how America reacts to them rather than on common culture. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong takes a poet’s lens to unpacking the complexities of the layered identities she wears: Asian, Korean, woman, poet. I underlined about half the book. Good Talk is an illustrated series of conversations by the always entertaining Mira Jacob about her South Asian identity, her relationship with her Jewish husband and bi-racial son. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous made me ache for Ocean Vuong’s upbringing as an imporverished Vietnamese immigrant discovering his queer identity. Viet Thanh Ngyen’s The Sympathizer up-ends the American narrative on the Vietnam war, and he continually holds America to account for its dismal portrayal of Vietnamese people in movies and other media (he used to be a Twitter fave, but looks like he left the platform). I was recently introduced to the Time to Say Goodbye podcast that takes a more academic approach, examining the issues of the day through a multi-ethnic Asian American lens. And for laypeople whose main relationship with Asian culture is Chinese food and Bruce Lee, here are two documentaries on the Asian American experience: Be Water about Bruce Lee fromESPN, and The Search for General Tso about the all-American history of an iconic Chinese-American dish.
Closer to home for me, Indonesian-British Will Harris unpacks what it means to be multi-racial through the lens of Keanu and Obama in Mixed Race Superman, especially examining Obama’s history with Indonesia. The layering of multiple races, histories and backgrounds is going to be continually complicated, especially in a country that often seeks to simplify and essentialize race.
I’m still processing this whole exploration of Asian American identity. Much of it ties to communal experiences of being othered and of a sense of alienation from the central American narrative, rather than a core identity. I think of the way many Black people valorize Black culture as The Culture, and see it as a central driving force to American culture as a whole. I’m not sure that Asian America has that; even the break-out stars like Mindy Kaling, Ali Wong, as well as the authors I read above, spend more time explaining and aggrieving their backgrounds than finding the strength in them.
In my early 20s I worked at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, an organization forging a creative language out of a disparate set of Asian experiences. I didn’t realize at the time how incredibly important that project was, and I want to see more of it.
A related book that’s on my list:
To escape the endless flux of 2020—the waves of the pandemic, the violence in the streets, the exhausting grappling with race and identity, the four walls that shaped existence, the challenges of relationships with people too near and too far—I turned to trees. I spent a little time hiking our forests and sitting in the grey-green shade, but mostly I read about them.
Suzanne Simard is the founding mother of a new study of trees that posits they work communally, underground, through a knitted system of fungus and root. The New York Times recently did a beautiful story about her, and how her study challenges the very foundations of Darwinism: that species are set up to compete rather than to collaborate.
The Hidden Life of Trees introduces us to the idea of trees as social beings by German forester Peter Wohlleben. The Overstory, Richard Powers’ epic tree-filled novel explores the intertwined lives of humans who have been shaped by their experience with trees. Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer maps the social and natural history of California through several of its species, and The Song of Trees by David George Haskell gives a lyrical voice to the scientific observation of trees around the world. Clever Trees, a 2010 podcast from the UK, explores curious behaviors of trees around the world. And the California Field Atlas takes another approach, synthesizing history, geology, and art into maps that make you think bigger by artist Obi Kaufman.
A related book that’s on my list:
And one book that has nothing to do with the above, but was the absolute perfect read for a year that upended all of our habits and had us glued to screens.
Happy reading in 2021!
Just so you know, most of these links go to my Bookshop.org affiliate shop. I appreciate Bookshop.org as it helps fund small independent bookstores. Honestly, I prefer the LA Public Library and the brilliant Libby app for finding and reading books, but if you’re going for physical copies, please consider Bookshop.org.