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Diversity and Challenge in Reading

This month's book group book is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (chosen as part of our prize winning books selection) and I've found that it's quite unsettled me. I'm struggling with being in lockdown again anyway and feel a bit like I'm under siege at the moment from paranoia, fear and a sense of isolation and I'm very conscious that these feelings have probably impacted on how I felt after reading the book. However, I think there is an element of truth to those feelings and I want to explore it a little more.

I've talked before about how I'd got into a reading rut a couple of years ago and I've spent the last two years trying to really push myself again to read books that were outside my comfort zone. The book group has definitely helped with that, as has the MA and I've discovered books that I've loved but probably wouldn't have picked up if I'd not been trying to push myself. When I choose a book, it's usually because I've read others by the same author, the blurb excites me or it's been recommended by someone. I read it and if I enjoy it I pass it on to other people. If it's based on a real event, I might research the event to find out more about it. However, I rarely pay any attention to the author themselves, even though I'm well aware that their life experiences have probably shaped the book. One lady in our book group always researches the author and the information she shares often makes us think about the book in a different way, which brings me to my point.

I wasn't swept away by Half of a Yellow Sun even though I thought it was well written and interesting. I just couldn't bring myself to care about the characters and this puzzled me. Some members had said they were struggling with the names of the characters because they were unfamiliar names, but I didn't think it was this for me - I grew up making up my own pronunciation for words I was unsure of and it had never bothered me in the past and I wasn't conscious of that being a reason for me not to be engaged with them. Obviously there's been a lot in the media recently about unconscious racism and I wondered if there was an element of that at play - was it because the characters were Nigerian that I couldn't relate to them? Again, I don't think so, but I couldn't dismiss this concern out of hand. Was I pushing back against the generally negative view of Britain in the book? Again, I don't think so. I'm not so blinded by patriotism that I can't see that Britain did some pretty horrific things in the past. However, what considering this did make me realise was that although I'm aware of some of the less savoury elements of our nation's history, I'm only aware of them from a 21st century British point of view. I know absolutely nothing of Nigeria's history and had to look up Biafra to see if the book was set in a real civil war, or if it had been invented for the purposes of plot and it may even have been this uncertainty that led to my lack of engagement with the characters. In a fantasy novel, you know things are supposed to be unfamiliar, but here they were unfamiliar when perhaps they shouldn't have been.

I did wonder if I'd been subconsciously avoiding books that might make me uncomfortable and perhaps there is something in that - not because of race or history particularly, but because I often use books as a form of comfort. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm also not sure it's a good thing to always avoid reading books that challenge and disturb and sometimes knowing an author's history can be a way into engaging more fully with the characters so that when unpleasant things happen to them, you feel more for them.

This brings me back to my point about researching the author. During our book group discussions I made the point that I didn't think I particularly read books by black authors and it was something I'd decided I needed to make more of a conscious effort to do. I'd already decided to keep a record of the books I read this year to make sure I was reading a range of genres and this was something else I wanted to add into the mix. One of the other ladies had mentioned that she'd been doing the same thing and she helpfully pointed me in the direction of some books I could read. Actually, when I went back over books I'd read, there were authors like Andrea Levy in there (if you haven't read Small Island, do so - it's brilliant!) and Bernadine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other is on our book group list for this year, but certainly with Small Island, it was about the experiences of Jamaicans in Britain and I want to read more books like Half of a Yellow Sun that give a different perspective on the experiences of people in the Empire/Commonwealth. I want books that will challenge the way I view my own perception of history, books that will make me think. That's not to say that I won't still read the light and the fluffy, the thrillers, the detective novels, the easy reads. I will, but I want to make sure that there's at least one challenging book each month that will leave me unsettled perhaps, but with something to really think about.

My problem with Half of a Yellow Sun may simply have been that knowing it was set in a war, I unconsciously distanced myself from it so I wouldn't be upset when things inevitably happened to the main characters. I'm not at my most resilient at the moment and maybe this was nothing more than my mind's defence mechanism kicking in to protect me. It may be that all the soul searching I've done was unnecessary. However, whatever the reason for it, in many ways I'm grateful. It's given me something to think about, it's made me consider my reading choices again and I have no doubt that if I do as I plan to, I will discover some wonderful new (to me) authors as well.

If like me, you are looking for something new to read, here's a few links you might find useful:

At the end of each month this year, I'll be blogging about the books I've read that month so hopefully there'll be a few in there for you to consider as well.

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