Recently at a reading, writer Ira Sukrungruang asked the audience: Wouldn’t it be nice to start every day with a poem?
Yes, I thought, and realized I should be reading more in general—a poem, a story, or an essay every morning; that there are so many classic titles and contemporary writers alike I need to re-read, and to teach my students.
Here are some recommendations—of new works as well as classics—that should be read, revisited, and taught now.
- “Girl ” by Alexander Chee
In this essay first published in Guernica and reprinted in the Best American Essays 2016, Alexander Chee explores the power of makeup, his early fascination with it, and how wearing a mask can sometimes help you find yourself. Diving into his background, readers see that his investigation of self intersects with what it means to be a man, a woman, Asian American, and white, or “passing.”
“This beauty when I put on drag then,” Chee writes, “it is made up of these talisman of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I find I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful than any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve tried.”
“This power I feel tonight, I understand now—this is what it means when we say ‘queen.’”
Alexander Chee is a contemporary fiction writer and poet who spent his growing up in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam, and Maine before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
- Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Ray Bradbury and Tim Hamilton
Many high school students are tasked with reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 as part of their curriculum—a book about a 1953 dystopian future where books are banned and burned, where literature, where knowledge, is considered dangerous—but fewer people have read this stunning adaptation.
In this classic book turned graphic novel, thanks to the collaboration of Bradbury and Tim Hamilton, readers not only get to see Guy Montag’s destruction of beloved books in huge splash pages of orange and red fiery blooms (“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes then burn the ashes.”), but they are given a new introduction from Bradbury in which he writes:
“Finally, may I suggest that anyone reading this introduction should take the time to name the one book that he or she would most want to memorize and protect from any censors or ‘firemen.’ And not only name the book, but give the reasons why they would wish to memorize it and why it would be a valuable asset to be recited and remembered in the future.”
- “Letter from a Region in My Mind” by James Baldwin
James Baldwin was a classic essayist in the nonfiction canon who wrote about the complexities of race, sexuality, and class in America.
In “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from The New Yorker’s November 17, 1962 issue, he writes:
“When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.”
Baldwin writes vividly, conveying what it was like grow up in Harlem as a young black boy watching his peers change before him, watching how he, himself, changed too.
Important to note is that before his death in 1987, Baldwin was at work on a book titled Remember This House, which sought to memorialize the deaths of three of his close friends, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The manuscript was only thirty pages long at the time of his death, and has now become the inspiration for filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro, currently out in theaters. The documentary features interviews with Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s notes: “In America, I was free only in battle.”
- “Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats” and “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” by Kaveh Akbar
In “Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats,” the epistolary poem published in POETRY in November 2016, Kaveh Akbar writes to God:
“Will his goodness roll
over to my tab and if yes, how
In “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” published in issue 17 of The Adroit Journal, Akbar writes:
Akbar is quickly becoming a favorite contemporary with his wild images and sharp colloquialisms, and he’s being noted, also, for his stewardship of introducing new poets from the seven countries recently affected by Trump’s travel ban, some of whom include Khaled Mattawa (Libya), Ladan Osman (Somalia), Safia Elhillo (Sudan), and Majid Naficy (Iran).
Born in Tehran, Akbar has said “there is a part of Iran that is hardwired in me,” and this is evident in his rich poems that sprawl open on the page.
“The first time someone asks you how Indian you are, lie.” Kenzie Allen writes in her poem, “How to Be a Real Indian” published in Narrative.
Say you dream
in Oneida at night, show-and-tell them rose rock
and kachina, give them exactly what they ask for…”
In “Fibonacci,” she delivers cold and blunt lines:
“Remember when I loved you so much I would break things?
I don’t love you like that anymore so you don’t need to call the cops…”
Kenzie Allen is a poet, editor, and literary activist completing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an Advanced Opportunity Fellow and Chancellor’s Award recipient, and a Teaching Assistant in American Indian Studies.
- MAUS I, My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman delivers one of the most powerful graphic novels with MAUS I: My Father Bleeds History.
Spiegelman’s MAUS is a metanarrative that follows two storylines: one that investigates the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, as he visits frequently for interviews and one that follows Vladek’s incredible story of surviving the Holocaust where, in this story, Jews are portrayed as mice and Germans as cats.
Readers can relate to the familial bonds and habits between parent and child and are shown a chilling inside story of what it was like to be a survivor of one of the most traumatic genocides the world has ever seen.
This account is an incredibly important and necessary story that depicts the unbelievable events of the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective.
- “Ordinary Girls” by Jaquira Díaz
In this Best American 2016 essay first published by the Kenyon Review, Jaquira Díaz writes of what it was like to grow up as a teenage girl in Miami Beach, Florida:
“We started talking about dying long before the first woman jumped. What our parents would do once we were gone. What Mr. Nuñez, the assistant principal at Nautilus Middle School, would say about us on the morning announcements, how many of our friends would cry right there on the spot. The songs they would dedicate to us on Power 96 so that all of Miami Beach could mourn us—Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” D.R.S.’s “Gangsta Lean.” Who would go to our funerals—boys who’d broken our hearts, boys whose hearts we’d broken.”
It’s her early meditation on death, on being young in dangerous situations, that makes her essay so compelling.
“Some girls took sleeping pills and then called 911, or slit their wrists the wrong way and waited to be found in the bathtub. But we didn’t want to be like those ordinary girls. We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.”
Jaquira Díaz was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Miami Beach, and is the Kenyon Review fellow in Prose for the 2016-2018 year. She is undoubtedly one of the most influential voices molding the nonfiction landscape today.
While the list could go on and on, this is a useful starter pack for what to read and teach now—a brief list, at least, with which to start our mornings, and, possibly, on which to base our classes.