Of book clubs and reading lists

I’ve always wanted to start a book club. Specifically, one which focuses on books by writers from Africa and the diaspora. There are so many amazing Black authors out there. I loved the African Writer’s Series of my high school days: writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Okot p’Bitek. Literature classes were my favorite.

We devised creative code words and phrases from our literature books: When budding entrepreneurs would sneak contraband toffee into school to sell – “Three for a bob!” (a shilling) – we referred to the sweets as “kola nuts” (taken from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) in order to avoid detection and punishment. (Okonkwo and the elders always broke kola nut before a meeting). You’d hear whispers in class: “Who has kola today?” And if you wanted to boast about an achievement, you’d declare: “I’m the lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree”, borrowed again from Achebe’s delightful collection of Igbo proverbs from the same novel. The full proverb is, “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said it would praise itself if no one else did”, which for us simply meant permission to brag.

 Book club reveries

I revisited my book club idea during the COVID-19 lock down three years ago and again last year, when I put it on my to-do list for Black History Month 2022. Well, finally it’s done, thanks to my sister, who gave me the Viola Davis book Finding Me: A Memoir as a Christmas gift last month. We decided to start a book club with Davis’s book and then include writers of color in general. Our first meeting is next month, just in time for Black History Month (I’m only one year late). 

The idea of a group of people sitting together to share their experience of a book delights me. As I prepare to host my first book club gathering next month, I notice that as I read a passage that moves me, I find myself in reveries about how other book club members are reacting to the same passage, where they are when they first read these words. I’m grateful that they are setting time aside from their busy lives to read before we get together. I wonder what their favorite reading spaces look like, whether they have a ritual that gets them started. I can’t wait to hear them talk about it at the meeting. 

 Finding Viola Davis

Remember the arctic spell we had in December? Perfect excuse to live in my pajamas by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, immersed in Finding Me. When the sun would peek out, I’d move to my favorite sunny window to find my cat already there (she follows the sun around the house) and continue reading, enjoying a satisfying afternoon together in companionable silence.  

Previously, I had watched Viola’s interview with Oprah when Finding Me had just been published (she got a Grammy Award for the audio book). I was moved to learn about the enormous hardships Viola endured throughout her childhood, and was inspired by how far she’s come to be able to play the powerful roles she is known for. She describes how she was excluded from acting roles that she was qualified and had auditioned successfully for, just because she was dark skinned. I learned about the insidious word “interchangeable”, used in acting circles to describe light skinned Black actors with who are deemed acceptable enough to play roles typically given to white actors.

I’m in awe of Viola’s incredible talent as an artist: from Broadway to Hollywood, from acting to producing; her exceptional range and intensity as an actor in movies like Mending Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, How to get Away with Murder, Doubt, and The Help. I have yet to watch her powerful performance as The Woman King, another thing on my to-do list. Among Viola’s towering achievements is being one of the few actors to receive an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony).

What’s on your reading list?

We’re already lining up interesting book club picks for the year. I got curious about what’s on other peoples’ reading lists – I believe that your favorite books say a lot about you. So I decided to check out the latest reading list for one of my favorite authors, Barack Obama.  He admits to being biased that his wife’s book The Light We Carry (another one for the book club) is first on his list, but we don’t blame you, Barack. The former president also shared his favorite music and movies for 2022, which included songs by Burna Boy and Lizzo,  and movies like The Woman King starring Viola Davis, another reason why I must watch it soon.

Happy reading and movie watching to all bibliophiles and cinephiles everywhere.

Photo by Julia Kicova on Unsplash