Books for Explorers: engaging the imaginary
The thing that really expresses my relationship to reading is the problem of imagining and creating a world. I mean, a world I would like to live in, a world that I can understand and see connected to other worlds.
As an African American in a long line of black scholars both in my family and in my world, I have evolved into someone who wants to ‘engage the imaginary’ and mine all sorts of literature and scholarly works for ways to think about social problems and historical streams that impact our global and local realities. Because there are no road maps to solving the pernicious problems of racism in America or identity crises in the black community, I feel I am an explorer, no different from Vasco da Gama or those who go to the moon. It is, in a way, the search for the alternative reality. Books are ways to see myriad other realities, to reflect on what it means to be human, and to engage the ironies of the human condition.
I am a social anthropologist, so I am especially interested in socio-cultural aspects of existence. Within this, I find I am fascinated by stories of nostalgia, longing, and rupture. This has to do with my understanding of the global black experience; if one can say such a thing. By this I mean the post-colonial and post-civil rights problems of migration, isolation, and rapid change. And also violence. It doesn’t mean I read only about blacks, however! On the contrary, I read narratives that engage those conditions. Veena Das’ book Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (2007) is one of my favorites. I’ll write again and often about specific other anthropology volumes that have really touched my heart; among these — James Ferguson’s Global Shadows.
When I need to excavate my feelings about certain theoretical arguments or the conditions described under one or the other Positionality, I go back to my love of fiction and in this way I am following the Sensuous Anthropology route of Paul Stoller and even Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. For instance, Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje is for me a seminal work about in-between, liminal communities that have also, in the post-colonial world, often been placed or aspired to join various management services for government. The characters remind me, in their eccentricity and in their comic-tragic family relations and political forays, of the descendants of America’s “free Negro Class” described by Ira Berlin in his many articles and in his book, Many Thousands Gone, in much less personal terms. I know from experience that those personalities and scenes in Ondaatje’s book have their counterparts in the fast dissolving world of the U.S. black middle class around Washington, D.C. and Virginia, especially between World War II and the turn towards residential integration for well-to-do blacks. Likewise, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ book Between the World and Me speaks to me about remembering and the creativity that is somehow incited when we really want to face our contradictions, with or without finding solutions. I think about how facing contradictions and problems must be, after all, an important step towards solving them.
I love The Concert (a novel) by Ismail Kadare for the way it shows the crumbling bureaucracy of a post-Soviet state and the dangers global forces can bring to the local. The Martha Quest series by Doris Lessing is a friend that I go back to over and over to ponder on the unfairness of politics and place, of idealism, subjectivity, and positionality as we talk of it now in the social sciences. Reading such literature along with consulting classics like Modernity at Large by Appadurai is for me a way to access the global and local, the theoretical and the poetic.
My taste is esoteric and wandering. I have favorite history volumes that I also go back to read like novels. Exchanging Our Country Marks (Michael Gomez), Dreams of Africa in Alabama (Sylviane Diouf), and Pier M. Larsen’s Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora are examples. I love to read such histories in tandem with volumes such as Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographics of Identity (Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg), or the collection of essays in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (eds. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek). In particular, I think that reflections on the terms and conditions of existence of African Americans can be re-thought using concepts and language that have more often than not evolved in the Africanist community. It is a challenge to take discourse about the African American community out of the box and see how ideas fare in a global framework that does indeed see African Americans as one of many African-descended diasporas in the world.
Wendy Wilson-Fall is an Associate Professor in Africana Studies at Lafayette College. Her most recent book is Memories of Madagascar and the Slave Trade in the Black Atlantic (Ohio University Press, 2015).