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The Curious Intimacy of Sharing Books by Liyana

I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse because Suzan-Lori Parks—the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright—told me to.

Okay, I exaggerate. Suzan-Lori Parks didn’t tell me, specifically, to read To the Lighthouse (although she did shake my hand, sign my copy of her novel, and offer some encouraging words when I told her I was studying acting, and believe me, I was walking on air for the rest of the night after that, because I am a shameless Suzan-Lori Parks fangirl). But when she lectured at my university, she mentioned that even though she had always wanted to be a writer, she had been so discouraged by her high school English teacher that she entered college as a biology major, which lasted until she read To the Lighthouse and was so incredibly blown away by it that she walked straight over to the English department and changed her major.

When she told that story, I immediately thought, “That’s it. If To the Lighthouse convinced someone as brilliant as Suzan-Lori Parks that she had to be a writer, then I need to read it.” So, the following summer, I found myself a copy at a used bookstore, and I fell in love with this strange, lush, modernist piece of literary glory. I loved To the Lighthouse on its own merits. But I also loved the experience of reading it while knowing how deeply it had affected a writer I admired, imagining which parts had spoken to her and influenced her. In reading To the Lighthouse, I got to have two reading experiences at once: my own and (my imagined version of) Suzan-Lori Parks’s.

Which is precisely why, even though I love reading books that friends recommend specifically for me, I also harbor a deep and abiding love for reading books that have been important to other people, regardless of whether or not they are books I would have chosen for myself. I love seeing a book through someone else’s eyes and understanding what it meant to them…and then comparing that to what it means to me.

And it’s taken me to some fascinating literary places.

I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent last summer because a good friend pressed it into my hands and said, “You haven’t read it? You need to read it. I had to stop reading it during my commute, because it would just make me sob on the bus. It made me feel so connected to other women, like I was part of this incredible sisterhood.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Red Tent, but while I enjoyed the story and the writing, the thing I enjoyed most of all was noticing the places that evoked womanhood-as-sisterhood and how connected that made me feel to my friend.

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is probably not a book I ever would have read if left to my own devices. But a close college friend handed me her copy and told me that it had helped her through a rough patch while she was dealing with depression and recovery from addiction. Ordinarily, I would have found Paulo Coelho’s particular brand of self-help-thinly-disguised-as-literature simplistic and grating, but when I filtered The Alchemist through my experience of my lovely, thoughtful friend and the knowledge that she found it inspiring, it became a sweet, gentle fairy-tale about one way out of the dark woods of the soul. (I do still like the Rumi poem it was based on better, though.)

I’ve had Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison on my to-read list for years, ever since one of my most brilliant acting teachers brought it to class with him one morning. He explained that several years before, he had taken it to the gym with him to read on the treadmill and ran across a passage that discussed using speech to communicate something deeper than just the words that perfectly expressed his feelings about acting. He read us the passage and then said simply, “I read that…and I fell off the treadmill.” And I knew that someday I would have to read the book that affected someone I respect that much so deeply.

There’s a difference in intimacy between sharing a favorite book with a friend because the two of you have a shared love of action-packed science fiction or lyrical prose or swashbuckling, badass queer ladies and in saying, “This book was important to me. It changed my life/shaped my thinking/perfectly captured my feelings.” Sharing the books that inspired us to make changes in our lives or that made us lose control of our feelings or our bodies is a profoundly intimate act. It’s like saying, “Here’s a piece of my soul. Please look at it.” When our listeners read that book, they reaffirm that intimacy with us, effectively saying, “You matter to me. I see you, and I want to know you better.” This shared intimacy can transform a mediocre reading experience into a good one, and a good read into a sublime one.

Have you ever loved a book because of the person you knew who loved it? Come tell me about it.

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Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”

 

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Abuse By Any Other Name by Sylvie and Bruno

TRIGGER WARNING: this post and the associated forum discussion thread discusses bullying and may have other triggers including abuse, neglect and victim blaming.

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I hate the word “bullying”.  I was “bullied” for years, and the word simply trivializes the fact that I was being abused by other children.  My pain was trivialized by all the adults in my life and I completely lost trust in the ability of adults to help me.  The world has changed since I was a child, but I know that there are still many kids who are in situations similar to what I dealt with.  I want, in a general way, to show some of what happened so that both children and adults can learn what can happen.

Like other forms of abuse, child on child abuse can be difficult to detect.  Something as small as the tone of voice used when saying a person’s name can be part of a campaign to damage a person.  These tiny barbs, even when detected, are often not addressed.  Adults may not be able to differentiate between two friends joking around and a child being tormented by another child.  In any case, it seems so small, and adults have other things on their minds, especially when they are trying to teach a class of 20-30 kids.  And especially when they only see those kids for one class period every day.
It quite often falls upon the person being tormented to seek justice.  And for me at least, this is where the most damage occurred.  Adults often have no idea “what really happened” and may encourage kids “to work things out themselves.”  I have worked with young kids, and yes, sometimes a kid who is crying “she hit me!” neglects to mention that the reason she hit him was that he was pulling her hair.  And there are kids who are “tattlers,” who actively try to get other kids punished for things like not paying attention or taking an extra piece of paper.  Adults have all sorts of reasons and justifications for missing what is happening.  But, by ignoring the call for help, adults send a strong message that the person’s pain is not important.
Even when adults do take action, there is often unintentional minimizing and victim-blaming that occurs.  Asking a child “Why did she do that to you?” may seem like a neutral question, but it is not.  It tells the child that they must have done something to cause the abuse.  A more neutral question would be “What was happening before she did that?”  When adults fail to address a child’s problems in a meaningful way, they are worsening the child’s difficulties by neglect.  And I mean neglect in a serious way.  As in child neglect.  In my case, there was so much inaction that I gave up reporting abuse and simply tried to endure it.
And sometimes adults go beyond neglecting a child’s need for protection and add to the abuse.  An example from my childhood was when I told my guidance counselor that I didn’t want to come to school ever again and was told that I had to keep going to school because my parents couldn’t send me anywhere else.  That was more than neglect.  That was a lie designed to make me shut up.  And I feel lucky that I wasn’t abused in a more horrific way.  But it did shut me up.  Verbally and emotionally.  For years.
I was a child.  I didn’t know what to do.  I have learned a lot more as an adult about how adults think and why they act in certain ways.  I have worked in schools and know how difficult it can be to manage a classroom and teach at the same time.  I know that there are adults who will help kids, but who can’t see what is happening.  I have learned that using certain words and phrases forces adults to look more deeply.   I don’t like the word “bullying” but it has become one of those powerful words that adults can no longer ignore.  Safety is another powerful word.  I would have never said that I felt “unsafe” at school, but if asked, I would have said that I didn’t feel “safe”.  And the opposite of “safe” is “unsafe,” but in my mind the word “unsafe” was an extreme.  It is important to use words that are accurate and that will get the help that is needed and deserved.
I am extremely lucky.  I was in private therapy while this occurred, and though I wasn’t able to improve my situation at the time, I have continued with therapy and have gradually been able to leave survival mode and unfold into the person that I am.  To anyone in a bad situation, I wish you the luck to find a way out, and a person to help you.
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Sylvie and Bruno is a member of Sheroes Central
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