The importance of reading beyond your lived experience

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It seems like only yesterday we were ringing in 2023! Yet here we are, already counting down the days until 2024. During this time of year, I am often very reflective, thinking about the goals I’d previously set for myself. On this occasion, I’m reminded of the ambitious goal I set for myself this year: reading 52 books. Now, I am nearly there but thinking about it now, that’s not really an important goal anymore. Beyond the book count, the other objective I set for myself in my reading journey was to read books from a diversity of perspectives. 

The pandemic reignited my passion for reading, with a little help from YouTube and Instagram. It helped me realise there was so much more to read about - outside of the classics from English Literature classes and familiar genres and voices.  

Each book I’ve read over the past few years has allowed me to engage in discussions that mattered, see the world through multiple lenses and sometimes challenge what I thought I knew. Now, books aren’t just something to read for fun but catalysts for powerful yet reflective conversations with friends and sometimes family.   

In our day to day lives, it’s very easy to become trapped within the boundaries of our own experiences. Between the pages of books, we can find new experiences and perspectives. Each book we pick up really is an invitation to step outside our lived experience. 

So, let me invite you on to my bookshelf and sharing with you my top reads that have encouraged me to continue to read outside of my lived experience. These books are more than their fun narratives or pretty covers – each left me thinking and feeling long after I closed the pages.  

Yellowface by R.F.Kuang  

I'll start with a book that has garnered a lot of hype lately, and for good reason. We follow two authors: Athena, an author who is climbing up the ranks in the literary world, enjoying immense success with her recent novel, and her frenemy June Hayward. June's debut has already been forgotten, and she's consumed by envy at Athena's achievements. However, after a freak accident results in Athena's death, June hatches what she thinks is a fool proof plan – steal Athena's latest manuscript and pass it off as her own. The only problem is, even after changing her name to sound more ethnically ambiguous (Juniper Song), this is just the beginning of her downfall. A plagiarism scandal fuelled by Twitter emerges, along with lingering questions about the morality of Juniper's actions. 

I devoured this book in a single weekend. Juniper is an incredibly captivating character, utterly delusional and bound by her own validations of incorrectness. 

This satirical novel touches on two main things. Firstly, it explores the idea of what types of stories writers are allowed to tell, considering their race, gender, and sexual orientation. It delves into white privilege and the extent to which it can be manipulated to achieve almost anything. Secondly, the book serves as a commentary on the publishing industry, which is under intense scrutiny for its treatment of marginalised writers and editors and its role in cultural appropriation. 

And if that wasn’t enough, adding another layer to this conversation is the irony that Kuang herself is an Asian American writer telling this story from the perspective of a white writer. 

More layers than an onion.  

Bellies by Nicola Dinan 

A modern-day love story, this book is a slow burn but so worth the journey, especially when you find out what Bellies means. On a university night out, Tom meets Ming and sparks immediately fly. They embark on a relationship and shortly after they move to London to start their next chapter, Ming announces her intention to transition. We follow Tom and Ming as they face shifts in their relationship in the wake of this news. 

The story spirals through personal, professional and life changing crises which forces Tom and Ming to confront how their lives no longer fit together perfectly as they once did. 

This book is a raw, emotional rollercoaster and unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of the complexities of growing up and navigating queer relationships in the modern world. I can't recommend a more beautifully crafted book than this one. It’s a must-read. 

The List by Yomi Adegoke 

This one’s a jaw dropper and will have you hooked until the end.  

We follow our #blacklove couple Michael and Ola, heralded as the IT couple of Instagram, with both at the height of their careers working at a production company and gal-dem-esque magazine respectively.  

All seems to be going well until a list appears online, of men who have sexually abused women but haven’t been brought to justice, and Michael’s name is on there. He swears he is innocent, but is he really?  

I love a book with layers – here are the key ones for me: 

  1. The internet phenomena of ‘The List’ and how this situation can be applied to anything e.g. you can go on Trip Advisor and write a bad review, which could have sometimes never-ending consequences on reputation. The power of anonymity that enables people to do anything.  

  2. How really serious allegations and critical moments like this are settled in the unregulated wild wild west of the internet, where social media is both judge and jury. Additionally, other halves of the accused can be thrown allegations of complicity that can have serious consequences.  

There’s so much in this book, and I love that it still manages to explore the depiction of black love on social media, men’s mental health and the power we all have to damage a reputation in just a few keystrokes.   

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson 

I’ve always strayed from overly lyrical novels, but this really changed my perspective and gave me a newfound appreciation (and expectation) for how black people, black love and black hope is depicted.  

We follow our unnamed protagonist, who is a photographer and his love interest, a dancer, in a moving narrative about London, love and life whilst black.  

The book explores themes of race and identity and through the characters we witness how so many things can construct our own identities; from our location through to the music we listen to.  

Caleb really did something with this. As short as this book is, the lyricism kept me engrossed for days. I’ve not read a book where I had felt so seen and acknowledged and there’s great power in that. I put this book high on the list of novels everyone should read.

Bless the Daughter Who Was Raised by The Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire 

The words in this poetry collection always return to me, especially whenever there’s news of refugees crossing waters to find safety and start a new life. In so few pages, Warsan manages to capture young black womanhood, what it means to search for home in the world, what it means to inhabit a woman’s body, and the tensions of honouring your faith, your family and yourself. 

I’d rather let Warsan’s word speak to her own brilliance here, but I will say, the standout poems for me are Drowning in Dawsons creek, Assimilation and My father the Astronaut.

(Please read trigger warnings before reading.) 

Evil Eye by Etaf Rum 

Having read Etaf’s earlier book A Woman is No Man (this is also great), I instantly picked up this one up. Light on plot, we follow Yara, a Palestinian art teacher at a local college. She has her job, her kids and her husband but feels unfulfilled. One day, everything changes when she responds to a colleague's racist provocation. As a result, she is put on probation at work and must attend mandatory counselling. This incident opens the floodgates within her about the inequalities and power imbalance in her relationship and she realises she needs to break the cycle of being submissive to the man and the relationship that has trapped her.

We’re taken through Yara’s inner monologue as she navigates her culture, marriage, and motherhood – ultimately, she’s a woman at war with herself.

The crucial point for me in this book is that Etaf wants you to question if the remark made to Yara was indeed racist or if she was being too sensitive. Who governs what’s racist and what’s not, and how do we internally determine when to speak up about it.

(Please read trigger warnings before reading.) 

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado 

This memoir reads like a horror fiction novel but is far from it. Machado takes us deep into a prior relationship with an ex-girlfriend, telling the tumultuous story of their existence through a series of fragmented memories. Each memory represents a different facet of their relationship, referred to as "the dream house”. The dream house, once a sanctuary of love and promise, becomes a place of torment and manipulation.

The reading experience is both mesmerising and disorienting, thus mirroring the reality of the relationship. Machado explores the complexities of emotional abuse within same-sex partnerships, the power of healing and the journey she went on to get there.

The “Choose Your Own Adventure” segment is a brilliant addition to the novel in the final third of the book. It reminds us that the choices we make so rarely lead to the end results we expect.  

As I reflected on my reading list, two things sprang to mind:  

  1. What is the purpose of me telling you why you should read these books? 

  1. If I’m telling others to read outside of their lived experiences, have I taken my own advice and done the same? 

Two very different questions but an interlinked response. True change (whether this be shifts in our opinion or perception) happens when we actively challenge our current thinking. In this instance, I’ve utilised one of my personal interests to confront my own outlook on the world. If we all take the initiative to challenge ourselves, we start a powerful way to drive change beyond our personal lives but right through to work.  

My ask to you – pick up a book, that falls outside of your usual remit, whatever that means for you. Once finished, reflect on what you’ve read and how if anything links to something wider in society. Then, tell a friend about it, and encourage them to read something you love.

We all have to start somewhere, and this is where I’ve begun. I hope it helps you as you start on your journey. 

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