My reading preferences seem to surprise a lot of people. It’s not a matter of me preferring dystopian YA fiction over the works of Margaret Atwood. It’s not a matter of me preferring Amish romance novels over the meatier, literary stuff*. It’s that I tend to read books based on the horrible aspects of what it is to be human. My shelves are overflowing with texts on infectious diseases, genocides, slavery, and Holocaust literature. I own memoirs written by survivors of natural disasters, combat, and terrorist attacks. Lately I have found myself watching Netflix documentaries about honor killings and war refugees. I tell myself it’s to help me with my history studies, and it is. Culturally speaking, it opens my eyes to a lot of things I would have never known about otherwise and I can use those new perspectives in my future historical interpretations.
When I was younger I always gravitated toward reading the darker stuff, mostly books about old hotel hauntings or serial killers. This never seemed to bother my parents. As a kid I visited my grandmother often when she lived in the same Milwaukee suburb as Jeffrey Dahmer. Later I moved Gainesville, Florida, a town that became infamous after the gruesome murders of five university students. One victim’s mother frequented the pharmacy I worked at. I always stared at her in awe (tactfully, of course), and thought Jesus. How have you managed to get on with your life?
I’m just a curious person.
It got me thinking about the way people grieve. All of us will experience a devastating loss at some point in our lives, and it is likely that we will be able to grieve privately. We will get to choose the people with whom to surround ourselves and we will all recover, over time. But how does one grieve privately when one’s loss is so public and only a fragment of the whole? In the event of enemy occupation, I could lose my home. In the event of a terrorist attack, I could lose my family. In the event of any mass trauma, I could lose my identity along with millions of others. How does one grieve when one’s loss becomes a thing the entire community, nation, or even the world claims as their loss, too? How does one grieve when the pharmacy technician keeps staring and thinking I know what happened to your daughter and I can’t un-know this.
Just this weekend I scanned and organized all my books into virtual shelves with my Goodreads app which I have set up to interact with my Facebook page. I mentioned this shelving frenzy on Facebook, and encouraged my friends to notice all my chick-lit and feel-good books. I’m not all gloom and doom, I told them. Yet the only book that showed up was a paperback I recently found called Night of Stone, an account of 20th century Russia and the culture of mass death in the wake of famines, political violence, and war.
Is it a wonder nobody believes me, that I can actually be found reading Sophie Kinsella or Elizabeth Gilbert? So this weekend I decided I would toss aside the Auschwitz book, ignore the collection of Holocaust poetry on my beside, and read an honest-to-goodness book of fiction.
I was immediately taken by In the Shadow of the Banyan and fought to stay awake on my first night with this book. The narrator is, at the moment, a 7-year old Cambodian girl trying to understand why her family has been forced from their home by men in black pajama pants. I was able to read a little bit at work on my break, during which two coworkers brought up my penchant for “happy” books (oh, the sarcasm). By this point, my book’s narrator was getting a lesson from her father on the push and pull of the river’s tide, the forceful expulsion of water that sometimes leads the river into unknown territory (a metaphor, yes, for forced migration).
Surprised that I was not delving into a detailed report on Ebola, my coworker asked, “So, what are you reading today?”
I showed my coworker the book’s cover and, without apology, explained, “It feeds into my genocidal interests, but this really is fictional.” We had a good laugh. Oh, that’s just Dena.
I don’t want to use the word fascination when trying to describe just how intense my interest is in traumatic recovery. There just isn’t any other word. Nothing that seems suitable, anyhow. My interest in this stuff is one of absolute respect. I am completely in awe of how one reconciles the loss of their homeland, culture, or every single member of their family, to violence, and can wake up the next day with…what? Hope? It obviously exists. Why else would a person want to go on?
While my studies are focused directly on American history, I choose to use much of what I read toward understanding cultures in general. Whether it’s learning about families who live in border refugee camps, or about the mother who lost her child at the hands of a serial killer, there is this kind of hope that each one of them carries. Their stories are out there and, in my privileged position as a graduate student with all the freedoms and securities I can ask for, I feel a responsibility to learn them.
* I am not one of those types of readers who looks down upon those who choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey or Beverly Lewis’ Pennsylvania Dutch love stories over, say, any other book. I don’t read that stuff, but if that’s what you wanna read, read it! I’m just happy you’re reading.