Literature and Identity: Our Team’s Book Recommendations on World Book Day
This World Book Day the Facing History UK team wanted to share which books had a profound effect on them as young adults.
The stories we come into contact with can have a formative impact on our lives by helping us to understand the experience of others in a way that changes our perspective or presents us with representations or voices that are missing from the literature around us.
We asked the team about the stories that expanded their thinking about themselves and the world around them, drawing from Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of books working as a “mirror” reflecting and affirming the reader’s identity and a “window” helping a reader comprehend different experiences and perspectives outside their own.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in my teenage years – a time when I was searching for direction and clarity on my identity. The story follows Ifemelu, a young woman from military-occupied Nigeria who moves to America and discovers a society and culture completely different to her own. When she arrives in America, she is confronted with the feeling of being ‘black’ for the first time. For my younger self, this novel was so impactful as it was one of the first books I had read that was both written by, and centred on, a person of colour. Prior to this I had only read the white British and American authors that dominated the school curriculum, so this book made me realise the possibilities that came with reading and acted as a springboard to discovering more diverse stories.
Although Ifemelu has a completely different cultural background to myself, I still felt like I could relate to Ifemelu’s experiences. In many ways this book acted as a mirror to reflect my own experience of being a POC in a predominantly white country. Only when Ifemelu moves to America does she deal with racism and the idea of ‘otherness.’ I grew up in a predominantly white town being one of the only POC at my school so this feeling of otherness and being profoundly different to my peers was something my younger self really grappled with. Yet, seeing this experience portrayed through Ifemelu made me realise that I was not alone in this.
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Senior Programme Associate
When I first read The Handmaid's Tale at sixteen I was on the cusp of adulthood, finding out who I was as a young woman, how I felt about my gender, my body and my sexuality. The narrator, Offred, immerses us in a brutal dystopia, where women are categorised by their reproductive capabilities and marital status, with no rights or personal freedom. The book captivated and unsettled me, offering a “window” into what it really means to be essentialised as ‘woman’. Until then, I hadn’t thought about biological determinism, that my experiences could be purely determined by my gender and by my ability to have children or not.
My eyes were truly opened – to the forcible removal of children from their mothers, to the demonisation of women deemed immoral by virtue of their sexuality or choices they have made about their own bodies. The world of Gilead is bleak, cruel, and scarily prescient. I’ve read the book many times, and always see something new that directly connects the novel’s dystopian future to the reality of women’s experiences throughout history, and to the treatment of women in the present day.
Amidst the fear, suffering and desperation though, there is hope. The book offers us a redemptive message about the community that women can create against oppression. From different backgrounds, identities and beliefs, and against all the odds, women come together and try to find ways to help each other, and in so doing subvert patriarchal and gendered notions of their abilities and their worth. This deep sense of humanity, solidarity and empathy has shaped me personally, in my academic work as a gender historian, and in my professional roles since.
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
As a teenager, I read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, which follows 12-year-old Esperanza and her experiences growing up as a young Mexican American girl in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. A focal theme in the novel is identity, as we see Esperanza torn between two cultural identities: the Mexican identity she inherits from her parents, and the American culture she finds herself living. In this sense, the novel acted as a mirror to reflect my own experiences at this age, as I too found myself trying to find a balance between two identities, between the culture of my immigrant parents and the British identity I was forming for myself. As a teenager I was not sure how to combine these, but as an adult, I realise that both cultures have shaped me into the person that I have become and I am now grateful for both.
A House on Mango Street was the first novel I read in which the voice and experiences of a person of colour had been centred, which at the time felt both shocking and revolutionary, Whilst the novel centred on Esperanza, Cisneros also wrote about community, what it is and how we experience it. Growing up with immigrant parents, we did not have family near us. Instead, we built connections and relationships with the people who resided on our street and in our neighbourhood, much like that of Mango Street, and to this day the novel continues to serve as a personal reminder of the importance of community and belonging.
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho at university coincided with a particular moment in my life where I was looking for direction and purpose. The story follows the protagonist Santiago, a young shepherd boy in search of worldly treasures. His journey for riches, a metaphor for happiness, ultimately leads him somewhere entirely different with him finding himself back where he started. I think the book was both a “mirror” and “window”, because although the character was not similar to me in any way, his journey of self-determination had a deep resonance for me that altered my perspective in a significant way.
The book helped me confirm my commitment to creating a career in self-development work, and to be secure in that choice. It provided me with confidence in my identity and how I interacted with other people. It taught me it’s not always about looking for something different, somewhere else, because then you risk missing what’s right there. If you use what’s already in front of you, your own internal resources, you can move forward with what you want to achieve. At the time, the idea that by setting out to achieve your dreams the world can conspire around you to support that was comforting.
In retrospect I think that the book would feel cliched and limited now, but that is the beauty of reading a book in a particular moment when it resonates with you. This came at a time for me when the messages were helpful and as a result it is one of the books that I remember having a significant impact on me.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Senior Curriculum Developer
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun follows the story and experiences of five characters who have been affected during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s. I remember being completely hooked by this book and blown away by Adichie’s writing and the story line.
Most of the books I had read prior to it, particularly those on my school curriculum, were by Western writers, so reading Half of a Yellow Sun was eye opening: it gave me an insight into Nigeria and taught me about the Nigerian Civil War, which, at that point, I knew nothing about. Reading it also encouraged me to pursue more literature written by POC authors to expand my awareness and knowledge.
I really appreciated how the two main characters, the sisters Olanna and Kainene, were complex and flawed. Initially, they had quite a fractious relationship, but ultimately after experiencing and witnessing hardship and suffering they looked out for each other, and for others suffering around them. I found their strength as female characters and the empathy they showed to others as the book progressed inspiring, and I was so heartbroken by the ending, I felt sad for over a week after finishing the book.
The book taught me about the importance of tenacity in the face of adversity, of looking out for others and of female empowerment. The shift that Kainene made from profiteering from war to running a refugee camp also affirmed the importance of doing meaningful work.
Another Country, James Baldwin
Development and Operations Administrator
Another Country by James Baldwin is a novel set in Harlem in the 1950s that follows the relationships of a group of friends in the wake of the suicide of a black jazz musician called Rufus. The book was significant to me in the way it portrayed how wider political forces of sexual conservatism and racism were lived and felt and how they played out in personal relationships. It provided me with a “window” by exploring, through the characters’ relationships, both white and black experiences of American racism. Within the interracial relationship of Rufus’ sister Ida with his white friend Vivaldo, for example, the racial tension of post-war Harlem created a barrier to their understanding and impacted how they related to one another.
At the time, as a student of History I had read widely around the historical context and it was important for me to remember these histories were experienced by real people and lived out in the day to day. It reminded me that history is something that is lived and that shapes how we relate to each other, and is something that needs to be confronted and recognised in order to be overcome. This insight went on to inform what I researched at MA level and influenced the direction of my career.
I was particularly drawn to the compassion Baldwin had for his characters in the way he sought to understand them despite their difference, and his refusal to compromise in his work by writing about then taboo issues of interracial love and bisexuality.
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