Since I managed to spit out a ‘My Year in Fiction’ post last week, i thought it might be a good idea to create ‘My Year in Non-Fiction’ and, voila, here it is! To my shame, I didn’t read quite as many nonfiction books as I did fiction last year (I’m endeavouring to read more nonfiction this year, especially since I have a biography to write!), so I don’t have twelve to share. Instead, I thought I’d share just three of the six or so that I read—in part because I’m in Hawaii and I’m lazy and not overly keen to write a billion-word blog post, but also because there are key themes underpinning these three books that lend them to being the three I look at in more detail.
The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island — Chloe Hooper
I had to read The Tall Man as part of my nonfiction unit for uni in the second half of 2017, and it was mind-boggling. In a stunning book-length piece of narrative journalism, Hooper examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Cameron Doomadgee while in police custody on Palm Island in 2004 as a microcosm within the wider context of white Australia’s institutionalised racism. In so doing Hooper demonstrates the power of narrative journalism to expose pervasive underlying social and cultural issues to a society which might otherwise remain—whether wilfully or not—ignorant of them.
It is incredibly powerful.
Cameroon Doomadgee was an Indigenous Australian living on Palm Island at the time of his death; his family and friends allege that he was unjustly arrested by policeman Chris Hurley one afternoon and subsequently died as a result of Hurley assaulting him in the cells. Certainly, Hooper’s book presents evidence which would seem to make this a foregone conclusion (though Hurley was acquitted in 2007). As with most books that force us to confront the uglier sides of life, I found The Tall Man harrowing, but Hooper’s work is brilliant. As she strives to provide her reader with an understanding of the humanity of both sides of Cameron Doomadgee’s story (the Indigenous Australian community on Palm Island and the white demographic both on the island and more widely), Hooper strongly illustrates the dangers of institutional racism and how the long historical oppression, manipulation and denigration of indigenous people creates inescapable socioeconomic conditions which perpetuate the challenges of Indigenous Australians.
In showing us Hurley’s past—going out of his way to work with indigenous communities, his work with children, his popularity in many communities—Hooper humanises Hurley so that we can’t demonise him. In doing so, she not only invites us to share in the mystery of what could be going on inside Hurley to lead to Cameron Doomadgee’s death, but she emphasises the dangers of internalised racism which can allow a ‘good man’ to commit a horrific act. And I feel Hooper thus also points out that the problem with racism and prejudice is that we can strive to escape it, but it is (to some) extent hardwired into us. [Psychological studies show that there is no such thing as a unprejudiced person: the only difference between someone who is prejudiced and someone who isn’t is that the ‘unprejudiced’ person works hard every day to overcome their prejudices.]
Hooper weaves together the past and the present to examine how institutionalised racism remains as an undiscussed and insidious presence in contemporary Australia, despite the seemingly widespread belief that Australia doesn’t have issues with racism. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It provides an incisive and disturbing picture of how we are shaped by our upbringing and our environment, and examines the serious problems of race and racism in Australia.
Hunger — Roxane Gay
I know, I know: I’m late off the mark. Everyone in the world seems to have been reading Roxane Gay for a million and one years, and here am I, just hoping on the bandwagon now: but better late than never, right? James was wonderful enough to pick this up for me while we were in Austin in December & I powered through it. Gay’s writing style is forthright and direct, and incredibly easy to read… And her memoir of her body is tragic and confronting.
Chronicling her life in terms of her body, her weight, and her relationship with both of these aspects of herself, Gay also brilliantly examines the issues of ‘fatphobia’ and weight-based discrimination in our society. In looking at the reasons for her own battle with her body, Gay reminds the reader that we never really know who someone else is (or what they’ve been through) until they also us to know them: and that our instinctive (and often cruel) judgements of others based on their physical appearance serves no useful purpose in either our lives or the lives of others. I want to say this is a book about teaching people compassion, but that would imply that Gay sets out to humanise people who society has deemed fat, and I don’t believe that is the case: in order for Gay to seek to humanise fat people, she would first have to accept that they are lesser, and that she needs to convince others that they are human… and I don’t think that’s her intent. She is bold and fierce and unapologetic for her life and for her body, and her experiences in a world that judges, marginalises, and negates her.
Roxane Gay forcibly reminds us of society’s dehumanisation and denigration of people due to their weight. In doing so, she forces us to recognise that it is our personal responsibility to redress our warped world view and grant other people the courtesy, respect, and compassion they deserve, regardless of what body they live in.*
Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions — Valeria Luiselli
James picked this up for us both at the same time he bought me Hunger, at the wonderful ‘Book People’ in Austin, as part of our ongoing attempts to garner a better understanding of the US and its policies, its people, and its issues. Based around Luiselli’s work as an interpreter for children seeking asylum in the US after fleeing from Central America, this 100-page book examines the asylum-seeking process in all of its flaws and shortcomings through the forty essential questions (and their vitally important answers) that Luiselli must pose to children hoping to escape their old lives for a safer, better one in the USA. In doing so, she describes the horrific conditions some of these children are coming from, the incredible risks they take to reach the USA, and the countless challenges they face in trying to secure a life and a future for themselves in the States. What struck me most about this book was how easy it is—or at least always seems to be—for those of us in positions of privilege to dismiss or downplay the difficulties others face, and the needs they have: Luiselli points out that children will seek out Border Patrol officers and hand themselves in (as they are required to do in order to apply for asylum), while simultaneously, ranchers and other vigilantes along the border make hunting ‘illegal immigrants’ into a sport. This is a short book, but Luiselli’s command of narrative is compelling and horrifying, forcing the reader to confront the humanity of the people who are so often and so adeptly portrayed as criminal predatory scavengers coming to ‘steal jobs from hard-working Americans’. As she so adroitly notes, if there is crime and drug trafficking in Central America, it is only because it is being drive by the demand from the US (and, by extension, no citizen of the ‘developed’ Western world can claim to be completely separated from the terrible conditions in which exploited populations live).
Mahalo everyone, and tune back in next week to hear all about our kaleidoscopic Hawaiian adventures!
*Hunger was exactly revelatory for me in this sense. Compassion, understanding, and meeting people on their own terms without judgement is something that I have really tried to be more active about in the past few years, and it is an ongoing journey.