Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli_TellMeHow_9781566894951_1024x1024An essay in 40 questions, beginning with “Why did you come to the US? Where are your parents?”

In Tell Me How it Ends, Valeria Luiselli shares her experience as an interpreter for refugee children from Central America arriving in the United States. As she fills out the intake questionnaire with each child, she attempts the impossible task of reducing the traumas of their life into a few blank lines.

The maddeningly concise questions minimize the underlying tragedy—the fact that thousands of children with the right to political asylum, the right to a dignified life free of violence and persecution, are quickly filtered through the US legal system. Often, they are deported as “illegals” before receiving legal support or due process to obtain refugee status.

Luiselli’s work is a testament to her commitment to making these stories known and heard. Many of the questions she asks the children are unanswerable, beyond comprehension, or too sad to muster a coherent response, but the call to action for the rest of us is much clearer:

 “And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

This book gives readers the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering of others, understand why families and children will continue to flee oppressive conditions, and hopefully inspire readers to take action against dehumanizing policies.

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“And once you’re here, you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the greater theater of belonging.”

Cocoa by Kristy Leissle

“But because cocoa is manufactured into a luxury so dear to so many, so accessible as an everyday moment of bliss, it comes with a different kind of emotional power than, say, oil or grains. The implicit call to action here is challenging: it is a request that everyone who uses cocoa ask how they personally benefit from it, and how that benefit derives from their relative power. There are many calls for justice in this industry. To succeed, they will require the hard work of interrogating personal privilege when it comes to cocoa.”

41WzrovBCaL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_How did cocoa go from being a highly masculinized beverage for Mesoamerican warriors, to a status symbol for European sociopolitical elite, to its current position as a highly accessible global luxury? How is it magically transformed from an alien-like tropical tree fruit to the glossy little packages on grocery store shelves? What does it mean to be an ethical consumer of chocolate?

In a relatively short read, Kristy Leissle covers everything from flavor profiles to gender inequality as she addresses these questions and offers the most up to date and nuanced picture of the historical, social, environmental, and economic factors that make up the global landscape of cocoa today.

This is an amazing resource for people hoping to better understand where chocolate comes from and the complexities of promoting sustainable production and trade justice for farmers.

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Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

9780520291812Originally published on Latinobookreview.com

As Mexican food is being globally ‘elevated’ and reinterpreted/appropriated by the foodie elite, Mexico has seen a simultaneous rise in obesity and diabetes as access to traditional food is drastically hindered as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Eating NAFTA is an investigation of the rise of industrial food systems in Mexico and the ways that governments have decentered the state’s responsibility to protect public health, while deflecting the blame and responsibility for health problems onto individuals, especially women and marginalized populations.

Gálvez switches between personal interviews and macro-level policies as she discusses everything from migration, the role of nostalgia in food consumption patterns, the burden of labor for women, and why the public health crisis in Mexico is not just an unintended consequence of NAFTA.

Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, diabetes has become the leading cause of death in Mexico, with a prevalence of almost 16% of the population. 42% of its food is imported, and poverty (55.1%) and inequality have increased. Gálvez calls out diabetes and diet-related illness as an example of structural violence enabled by continued state-led manipulation.

“Colonialism’s extraction of raw materials and resources provided the fodder for the machines of industrialization. In the post- or neocolonial world, parasitic relationships between former colonial powers and territories continue to organize global trade and economic relationships. Only because of the relationship of economic and political dependence between center and periphery could the center become wealthy enough to dominate the global economy.”

 

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

“The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were intertwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not. Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities—who were rich precisely because they did so? Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing?

 

9780553447439Eviction exposes the cataclysmic effect of unstable housing as Desmond follows the lives of eight families facing eviction and substandard living conditions in Milwaukee. By embedding himself in a trailer park on the South side and a rooming house on the North side, Desmond learns about how housing policies often punish victims of domestic violence, why the presence of children nearly triples the likelihood of a tenant receiving an eviction judgment, and how government housing subsidies ultimately line the pockets of upper class Americans while access to affordable housing remains unattainable for many.

My biggest issue with this book is Desmond’s descriptions of his subjects, which sometimes felt like caricatures of real people. Nevertheless, his in-depth investigation presents a more holistic understanding of the relationship between landlords and tenants and how exploitative policies contribute to persistent economic and social devastation in poor communities, disproportionately so for black and Hispanic Americans.

This is an important read that highlights why it’s crucial for people to keep researching in a more nuanced way. We need to listen to individuals in order to empathize with peoples’ lived realities, as well as recognize that housing problems are not just about the poor. Evicted helps us begin to understand the complexities that link every one of us in a flawed economic system.

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Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge

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While working in international development, I found myself questioning whether foreign aid does more harm than good. I could list out ways that it failed to provide lasting solutions and effected unintended negative consequences, but I could never quite respond to the “then what do we do instead?” question that I often got from people. Rather than continuing on the path of misguided development efforts (creating energy and resource-intensive systems that emphasize economic growth at any cost), do we instead turn a blind eye to the problems largely created by Western imperialism? In Ancient Futures, Norberg-Hodge talks about the destructive forces of development and provides an alternative vision for what she calls “counterdevelopment”.

The author first came to Ladakh in 1975, back when there was barely any Western influence in this ancient society. She became fluent in the local language, immersed herself in the community over many years, and witnessed the dramatic changes that occurred as globalization infiltrated the Tibetan plateau. Norberg-Hodge sheds light on some of the many admirable qualities embodied in the Ladakhi communities—self-reliance, social harmony, and ecological balance, all of which seemed to be rooted in the limitations of their environment and a spiritual awareness of the “profound interconnectedness of all phenomena”. As tourism, industrial agriculture, and other commercial forces have created a dependence on the global economy, the Ladakhis’ connection to place and community have been impaired, repeating a pattern of social and ecological collapse that is occurring all around the world at an increasing rate.

Instead of exporting a model of an unsustainable lifestyle, counterdevelopment focuses on resisting the consumerist monoculture by re-localizing economies and actively encouraging ecological and cultural diversity.

“Once, I tried to explain the concept of stress to some villagers. ‘You mean you get angry because you have to work?’ was the response. Every day I saw people from two cultures, a world apart, looking at each other and seeing superficial, one-dimensional images. Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, ‘How terrible; what a life of drudgery.’ They forget that they have traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountain with heavy backpacks. They also forget how much their bodies suffer from lack of use at home. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club—across a polluted city in rush hours—to sit in a basement, pedaling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege.”

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

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Charles C. Mann’s 1491 re-tells the history of the Americas as it has been revealed over the last several decades of advanced research. Starting by correcting the massively underestimated pre-Columbian population figures, Mann then shifts focus to the next logical question—what were all those millions of people up to before small pox and Columbus arrived? The last section of the book discusses the ancient ecology of the Americas and why its collapse inevitably followed the destruction of Indian societies.

Each chapter is full of boots-on-the-ground research efforts, the high drama of the academic world, and myth debunking evidence.  Mann’s level of detail is complete with appendices on topics such as loaded words and the technical details of the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. Throughout the book, Mann equivocates about politically charged disagreements regarding native communities and more importantly, insists on something long denied the American indigenous—the dignity of agency in their own history.

1491 is important because it points out why the Americas was not, in reality, a New World simply because it was new to Europeans in the 15th century. Many modern environmentalists who advocate for restoring land to a “pristine, wild” state of the past fail to acknowledge an entire continent of diverse ecosystems that were highly managed and integrated with native communities before those societies were decimated. This book is proof of the monumental gaps in our understanding of the world as well as the underestimated legacy of the people who were exploited to make a privileged Western society possible.

 

“Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. The fears come from the mistaken identification of wildness with the forest itself. Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors.”

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Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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Women Who Run with the Wolves is a collection of myths and stories venerating the Wild Woman–the powerful, instinctive nature that lives within every woman. Collected over a lifetime from around the world, and especially from the author’s Latina and Eastern European ancestors, the stories teach us that the Wild Woman brings vitality, good instincts, and creative fire to the female soul. Through the characters and archetypal symbolism, Estes teaches women how to nourish the Wild Woman in order to avoid falling victim to an over-civilized culture and other predators both external to and within our own psyches.

 In contrast to the watered down, Christianized fairy tales of modern times, these stories are dark and messy. Each one, combined with commentary, reveals insight into topics such as romantic relationships rooted in soul-craving, seeing through illusion, finding people we belong to, embracing the Life/Death/Life cycle, and how to live in a way that honors the untamed criatura within each of us.

I hope that all of the women I love will read this one for the spiritual healing it can bring at any stage of their post-adolescent life. I suspect that different chapters will speak to women at different points in their journey, and I plan to read it multiple times!

 

“The balanced valuing of emotion is certainly an act of self-respect. Even raw and messy emotions can be understood as a form of light, crackling and bursting with energy. We can use the light of rage in a positive way, in order to see into places we cannot usually see.”

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

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This book is an activist’s ode to the ineffable nature of cities–places full of a regenerative vitality that we often diminish in our attempts to organize them via conventional city planning. Rather than molding cities in to a utopic image of what we think cities should look like, Jacobs’ key focus is how to revitalize American cities based on simple principles that promote diversity of uses, people, and structures over time and space.

Encompassing everything from safety, to economics, to unslumming neighborhoods, to traffic control, Jacobs’ four conditions for vitality are a strategy that I like to think of as a holistic healing method for all of the interrelated elements of a city. She dives deep into often ignored details like the role of informal surveillance of sidewalks, e.g. storekeepers, people running errands, the old guy always sitting on his stoop, homeless individuals (or the “leisurely indigent” as she calls them). Each section is detailed and concise, and Jacobs always relates the individual concepts back to the larger end goal of vitality and diversity.

Jacobs’ writing is full of a scathing wit that I often observe among writers going against the academic grain, and her arguments are logical—founded in common sense and observation. The book was originally published in 1962, and yet the concepts still ring true today. The same problems and failures attributed to orthodox city planning could be applied to any number of other fields—the financial system, human health, agriculture, and more. As with any dynamic organism, Jacobs argues that we can nourish a city and provide a positive environment while also acknowledging our incomplete understanding of its complexity. While this book made me feel disappointed by our lack of progress in creating healthy cities, it also provides a way forward and a genuinely optimistic outlook for the future of American cities.

“Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic. The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.”

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The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

fukuokaFukuoka describes how he came into natural farming and how his simple principles of working the land reflect his philosophy of casting aside human will and ego. By observing and cooperating with the natural patterns of nature, he has found a way to produce an abundance of rice, winter grains, citrus, and wild vegetables on land that becomes more fertile with each year.

His journey begins at the age of 25, when the simple thought occurs to him that humans know nothing at all. As he follows this concept to its logical conclusion (maybe he doesn’t even exist at all!), he abandons a way of life centered on human knowledge, choosing instead to fully embrace the incomprehensibility of nature. The four principles of his farming are simple: 1) no plowing 2) no chemical fertilizers or prepared compost 3) no weeding by tillage or herbicide and 4) no dependence on chemicals. His methods are based on decades of observations of complex, naturally occurring systems. In short, he aims to do as little as possible to interfere with these systems.

While the language of the book is simple, I found the philosophy difficult to wrap my head around. In fact, by trying to intellectualize it, I am automatically not resigning myself to nature. Nevertheless, Fukuoka’s most poignant point for me is that we can choose to live within a different societal construct from the one that has caused so much destruction to the earth, body, and spirit. He explores details such as the role of a spider within his rice fields and the synergistic effects of a specific acacia tree, while also linking these elements to a holistic concept. Fukuoka’s life and his impact on those who have visited his farm are a breath of fresh air to someone who has read too many books about the many ways we are destroying the earth.

 “The human being was a happy creature, but he created a hard world and now struggles trying to break out of it.”

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

angelouMaya Angelou’s memoir begins in Stamps, Arkansas during the 1930’s. In this rural community, raised by her grandmother and crippled uncle, she learns from a young age what it means to be a tough woman as she and her family endure the humiliations of racism and prejudice. When her estranged father unexpectedly returns for Maya and her brother, they are introduced to an entirely new cast of family members and misadventures as they transition to life in urban northern cities.

This biography reads like a heartbreaking poem. With a seamless narrative style, Angelou depicts the petty struggles of adolescence alongside the traumatizing injustices of being a young black girl. She recounts her experiences in the refined voice of her adult self while capturing the innocence of her younger version. I loved reading Angelou’s story, and by the last page I was overwhelmed with awe at the woman she becomes.

 

“It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of blackness.”

 “Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world. His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. I could have developed the first two virtues, but becoming a boy was sure to be difficult, if not impossible.”

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