The Best Books About Race To Read During The Pandemic : Code Switch The Code Switch team has been mired in a months-long debate that we're attempting to settle once and for all: What kind of books are best to read during this pandemic? Books that connect you to our current reality? Or ones that help you escape it?
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Battle Of The Books

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Battle Of The Books

Battle Of The Books

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Hey, fam. We have a favor to ask. Do you identify as Latino, Latina, Latinx, Hispanic? Are you about to turn 18? We want to talk to you about the upcoming election. Please send us an email at codeswitch@npr.org with the subject line Latinx 18. That's Latinx 18. Thank you so much. Now on to the show.

You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Gene this week.

MERAJI: Karen, I wish I could say you were here for a happy reason, but the reality is you're here because our team needs to settle a score.

BATES: That's right. This is serious business because today on the show, we're settling once and for all a question that we've been debating for months and a question, in fact, that a lot of people have been debating. What kind of books are best to read during this pandemic - books that connect you to current reality or books that help you escape it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I've heard a lot of people talking about reading everything they can about plagues and pandemics, anything involving the end of the world. We're talking histories of the Spanish flu, yellow fever, the bubonic plague, anything with a dystopian future in it. And of course, you know, people are also scooping up books just as fast as they can about racism and antiracism and white fragility, et cetera, et cetera - really trying to contextualize this moment, as we've come to call it - this moment.

BATES: But there are just as many people who are staying as far from all of that as possible and sinking into the soothing comfort of books that take place in happier times and places and have happier beginnings, happy middles and, most importantly, happy endings.

MERAJI: Whoa, do those books exist with all that - happy beginnings, happy middles, happy endings? Sign me up (laughter).

BATES: They do. They do (laughter).

MERAJI: I wonder if people can guess where you stand on this debate.

BATES: Oh, it's no secret that, although I am a hardened cynic, I am team escapism right now.

MERAJI: Tell us why.

BATES: Why not? Have you looked at the news lately? We are so saturated with grim reality - political, medical, economic and, most recently, the loss of R.B.G. - all of it. I needed an escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: And I thought, what's more escapist than romance?

MERAJI: Ooh, la la.

BATES: So that's what I've been reading. And I have to say, I did not start out as a fan of the genre. I'm usually much more of a mystery, suspense kind of reader. But I'm really getting into it.

MERAJI: I have to say that I'm not that surprised that you're getting into romance novels in this time that we're in. After all, it was just a few months ago that you talked to Terry McMillan on the pod about her book "It's Not All Downhill From Here," which has some sex in it, et cetera. And you talked about how you were spending a lot of quality time engaging in some romantic activity with your special quarantine buddy...

BATES: (Laughter) Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Your husband.

BATES: That was - what? - four months ago. We - this - we're at the...

MERAJI: Yeah - or five.

BATES: Yeah, we're at the end of the sixth month now, and we've sort of spaced ourselves a little bit during the day. And we meet up for dinner, which is nice. During the day, I spend a lot of time with my dog, Jack - no romantic time with him, though.

MERAJI: (Laughter) That was quite an image. OK. Anyway...

BATES: He's a smoocher (laughter).

MERAJI: He does. He does like to smooch with terrible breath - terrible breath.

BATES: He does. We need to see a dentist.

MERAJI: So K.G.B., you're going to make your case and introduce us to a book that you think is going to convince our audience that romance and escapism and not thinking about anything pandemic-related is the way to go. So what's the first book you've got for us?

BATES: It's called "Real Men Knit," and it's by Kwana Jackson. And I'll let her give you the synopsis.

KWANA JACKSON: "Real Men Knit" is the story of four brothers fighting to keep their family's knitting shop open after their adoptive mother suddenly passes away. And it's also the love story of Jesse, who is the youngest brother, and Kerry, who is a part time shopkeeper. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Kerry has had a longtime crush on him for forever.

BATES: So...

MERAJI: Ooh, I like that.

BATES: Yeah. It starts out sweet. It's a love story about two people and also a love story about Harlem and community. And Kwana says she gave them a single mother on purpose.

JACKSON: I'm a native Harlemite, born and raised in New York. I saw lots of Black women taking care of not just their own kids but kids in the neighborhood. It was sort of the takes-a-village situation.

BATES: Shereen, there are a lot of real-life issues in this romance. Kerry and her best friend teach classes in a charter school. And not everyone loves a charter, so there's some tension there. And, of course, Harlem is a very hot neighborhood right now, so the issue of gentrification is there. Mama Joy's shop, Strong Knits, sits on a choice piece of real estate, and it's ripe for being turned into a coffee shop or a high-priced clothing store or a yoga studio or something like that.

MERAJI: Hold on, Karen. Let me stop you there. You told me that we were going to be talking about romances with happy endings, and this is sounding very real and not all too happy - gentrification and whatnot. Is this an escapist novel? Because it doesn't sound like it.

BATES: Well, you make a fair point, and I asked about that. And Kwana says, even though this is a romance, she couldn't imagine leaving the real stuff out.

JACKSON: For another person's novel, maybe it wouldn't be in there. But for me, as a Black writer who was born and raised in Harlem, I mean - the fictional Strong Knits that I've written is pretty much around the corner from where I grew up. And I don't even know if I've ever said this in an interview, but when my grandmother passed away, she had on her dresser notices from the housing department wanting her to move out of her longtime home of over 40 years to another borough, into a smaller place, and probably so that they could start to gentrify where she was living. So I - that's something I can't escape. Though I am a fiction writer, I cannot escape reality in my fiction. It's just - you know, it might not be romantic, but it's real.

MERAJI: Hmm. That's making me a little bit nervous for this happy ending I'm hoping for. Do Kerry and Jesse end up together? I want to know, and I really hope the shop remains in the Strong brothers' hands.

BATES: Well, I'm not going to spoil anything, but let's say there is a happily ever after. Shereen, I've learned that the cardinal rule in romance is you can go through hell, and the reader will stick with you if you arrived at the mandated HEA. And I can say, yes, "Real Men Knit" runs true to form in that way.

MERAJI: Finally, some good news.

BATES: Yeah, we could use it (laughter).

MERAJI: The book is "Real Men Knit" by Kwana Jackson. But Bates, if you thought we were going to let you sit there and get all warm and fuzzy, you're wrong because we're in a competition. So we are now joined by someone who is a fierce, fierce advocate for pandemic reads.

BATES: Uh-oh.

MERAJI: (Laughter) And I'm talking about Leah Donnella. She's our editor, and she is here in the boxing ring, ready to duke it out with you. Hey, Leah.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Hey, Shereen. Hey, Karen.

BATES: Hey.

DONNELLA: So glad to be here. Ready to dominate.

BATES: We'll see about that.

MERAJI: All right, Leah. Tell us - why are you team pandemic reads?

DONNELLA: OK. Well, I have spent pretty much all of my time thus far inside two rooms of my apartment. I rode the metro once for the first time last week, and I've ridden in a car to visit my family. But for the most part, I've only gone as far as I can walk. So it's been weird and isolating, as I know it's been for a whole lot of people. And I found it really, really helpful to read books that make me feel like I'm in community with other people who have dealt with similar things or that let me understand my own experiences in a different way.

MERAJI: OK. That makes sense. I'm with this argument so far. And what have you been reading that's helped you do that?

DONNELLA: Well, the first book is called "Catherine House," and it's by Elisabeth Thomas. And it is about...

ELISABETH THOMAS: This young woman who goes to this cultlike college deep in the woods of Pennsylvania and finds that there may be some mysterious dark secrets beneath its promise of prestige.

DONNELLA: So that's the author, Lissie Thomas. The thing about this book that feels particularly relatable right now is that the students at this school are not allowed to leave campus, like, ever for three straight years. So there are no summer breaks, no holidays - nothing. They're essentially in a deep quarantine.

BATES: Why would you want to read that? I feel like we're already living that.

DONNELLA: One of the things I love about the book is that even though there's this sense of being trapped and something very sinister is going on kind of in the background, the book also spends a lot of time focused on what it means to fall in love with a particular place. So you know, instead of the impulse to, like, go somewhere new every weekend, it asks, what would it mean to be really present where you are?

BATES: Ooh, OK.

DONNELLA: Yeah. It has gorgeous descriptions of nature. And as I was reading, I noticed myself being kind of awestruck by my own surroundings - so the flowers that were blooming in the spring and the smell of the air as the weather got warmer. It reminded me of watching seasons change when I was a kid.

MERAJI: And Leah, since, you know, this is CODE SWITCH and you are our editor, I'm guessing there is a racial piece to this book that also got you interested in it.

DONNELLA: Of course. The school in this book, Catherine, is presented as a kind of, like, utopia that's removed from the problems of the world. It's very diverse, and all of the students seem to get along really, really well. So there's essentially no racial tension, and Lissie said she did that on purpose. But two of the main characters are Black. And at one point, one of them, Yaya, is talking to her best friend. And she says...

THOMAS: You can't get sucked in here. We have to come in here, graduate, get our grades and get out of here because it would be really easy to get sucked in here. I mean, that's how I felt about my college experience, honestly. But I think that I saw other Black students who had almost the exact opposite reaction.

DONNELLA: Lissie went to Yale, which, she said, has, you know, some parallels to Catherine House. And actually, her father and grandfather also went to Yale and had some...

DONNELLA: Oh, wow.

DONNELLA: ...Very weird "racial experiences" - I'm doing air quotes here (laughter). And she was very aware of Yale's really troubling history with race.

THOMAS: But then there were other students who are kind of like, oh, my God, here we are at this magical place that has this amazing history. And I'm like, this place's history is terrible. So I thought it would be really interesting to show those two viewpoints with people who are the same race.

DONNELLA: That dynamic also helped me think through what we're experiencing right now. Like, in the midst of a really bad situation, are we going to pretend that everything is all good and just enjoy things when we can? Or are we going to be really clear-eyed about things and try to fight our way out? Obviously, some people, who will not be named, are fine with just pretending everything is all good.

MERAJI: Challenge, Karen.

BATES: Hey, I did not say I was fine with it. But that doesn't mean I have to wallow in the misery all day every day. In fact, I think that if I'm spending my days thinking about the pandemic and trying to bring light to some of the ways it's affecting our country, I'm more than entitled to spend my nights thinking about something else. In fact, I think really being able to think about something else can actually remind us of what it is we're missing and why it's important to change our current circumstances - instead of acting like going outside and smelling some flowers is a worthwhile trade-off for having to be stuck at home all day every day worrying about catching this damn virus.

DONNELLA: Whatever, Karen.

MERAJI: Oh, whoa, whoa, Karen. OK. OK. Let's take a moment for a second. Let's just take a deep breath. This is getting a little heated. And we have more books to get through. Karen, you actually have the floor again, so make your case with your second book recommendation. What is it?

BATES: So my second book takes place in England. I chose it because it has some things I don't often see on this side of the pond - Black women who are well-to-do and a little spoiled by their families. The book is "Take A Hint, Dani Brown," and its author is Talia Hibbert. I asked Talia to give me the 40-second description of the book.

TALIA HIBBERT: "Take A Hint, Dani Brown" is Book 2 and my latest rom com series which follows three sisters and their various shenanigans. In "Take A Hint, Dani Brown," the heroine, Danica, is a Ph.D. student and an amateur witch who doesn't believe in love. And she ends up faking a relationship with her co-worker, a security guard who runs a children's charity and is a hopeless romantic. And their fake relationship becomes a bit too real.

MERAJI: Hmm. Your first book had four brothers. This one has three sisters. I'm sensing a theme here.

BATES: Or maybe people used to just have more sex. I don't know.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: Anyway, there are three Brown sisters - Chloe, Danica and Eve. And they, too, will each have a book.

DONNELLA: What? Oh, wow.

BATES: Yeah. The first one was "Get A Life, Chloe Brown," and it was delightful. I was really charmed by it, so I was happy to see this one in my mailbox. And I should say that Zafir, Dani's security guard friend and eventual lover, is a former national rugby champion who left the game for his mental health. His security guard salary covers the cost of running a nonprofit for urban at-risk youth in London. And as Talia says, he is a hopeless romantic.

MERAJI: So I'm kind of an Anglophile. Not a lot of people know that about me. I don't know if it's the accent or my obsession with the Beatles when I was young, but I definitely want to hear more about this rich English family and all of the romantic travails that ensue.

HIBBERT: The Brown family, like me, are a Black British family. They have Jamaican roots, like my dad's side of the family. And one of the fun things about their family is the grandmother, Gigi, who actually in the '60s was a bit of a celebrity. And she's still very glamorous and a bit unpredictable. And the three sisters, they are very close. They're quite different. They're quite well-off, as well, which isn't something that I've always written, but it was quite fun to kind of envision their lifestyle. And they're incredibly posh, which was also fun (laughter).

BATES: In writing the Browns as a very well-off family, Talia says she was tapping actually into a tradition.

HIBBERT: I think, especially in British literature, it's quite a humorous convention to have this very posh, very well-off family that's disconnected from the world in a humorous way. And I really wanted to explore how that would look from a Black British perspective because, as you mentioned, it's not one that we got a lot of the time - and also just because when I'm writing, I do like to cover as many different ends of the spectrum in terms of the diversity of Blackness that I can. And you know, I know people like this, just like I also know people who are struggling and everything in between. So it's nice to give everyone some time in the limelight.

MERAJI: It sounds like she's really upending these old formulas with a new twist.

BATES: Yeah. And Talia's characters are complicated. Dani Brown is about to get her Ph.D. in psychology and take on patients, yet she has her own issues. She refuses to countenance a romantic relationship because she is afraid of having her heart broken, so she has commitment problems. She's good with sex - and there is a lot of it in this book...

DONNELLA: Ooh, good.

BATES: ...But not romance. She wants to hit it and quit it.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: Zafir is a hunk, but he's hurting from a family tragedy he can barely face. And these two have intense chemistry.

MERAJI: Mmm, nice.

BATES: And I should also point out here that this is an interracial relationship, Shereen. Dani is Black. Zafir is South Asian and Muslim. Talia did this very purposefully.

HIBBERT: It more started as something that I did automatically because I myself am in an interracial relationship. So it was a bit of a self-centered starting point. But what was very important to me was, for one, to have those relationships be very healthy and to kind of illustrate the way I believe an interracial relationship should look. And then it was also important to me to highlight that interracial relationships don't always involve a white person. In my family, my maternal grandparents had an interracial relationship that didn't involve a white person.

MERAJI: As the product of a relationship between an Iranian and a Puerto Rican, I find this very refreshing. This is wonderful. But I would like to get back to the sex.

BATES: What you refer to as the bow-chicka-wow-wow (ph)? (Laughter).

MERAJI: The bow-chicka-wow-wow, exactly.

BATES: Well, a lot of traditional romance used to take you sort of this far but not beyond that. You didn't always get to see what happened behind the bedroom door. But this isn't your grandma's romance, Shereen - or even your mother's. There's a whole group of contemporary romances out there now where sex is very much a part of the story.

HIBBERT: I've had some readers who have been really surprised, possibly because they're new to romance or they're new to steamier romance or just because they didn't expect it from a rom-com with an illustrated cover. But obviously, a lot of my readers are kind of veteran romance readers. And I've grown up loving this genre, and you really got such a broad spectrum now, from the closed door to the very hot. So for me, it was kind of - for one thing, I like the opportunity to be very sex-positive while I'm writing these scenes. So maybe that's why I go into more detail - 'cause I can do more with it.

MERAJI: Hmm, points for Karen Grigsby Bates with her soft sell for romance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Or, in this case, maybe the (clearing throat) hard sell for romance.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Well, OK. Let's not get that much more into this. This is a PG-13 show. We've got kids listening. We're going to move on.

Leah, your turn. Can you top Karen's pick?

DONNELLA: Can I top it? Uh, yeah. I think so. But a warning - this next book is maybe not for virgin ears either.

SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA: "Mexican Gothic" is set in 1950s Mexico in the countryside.

DONNELLA: That's the author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

MORENO-GARCIA: A young woman is summoned by her cousin to take a - to visit her there. She has been recently married to an English man, and things are very strange around her house. She might be sick. She might be mentally ill, or maybe she just has tuberculosis. So our young heroine goes to investigate, and she arrives at this great big mansion in the mountains and discovers that there is certainly something afoot.

DONNELLA: So this is another book where someone winds up essentially trapped in one place for a prolonged period of time.

MERAJI: So you have a theme, too.

DONNELLA: I sure do. I love it.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: And you know, also, again, there is something very sinister going on kind of in the background. Actually, there's a bunch of really creepy, gross, horrific stuff happening. But one of the things the main character learns early on is that the patriarch of this house is big into eugenics.

MORENO-GARCIA: But the reason why I'm interested - why I became interested in eugenics was because there was a widespread scientific movement. At the time, people took it very seriously. Eugenics was found in textbooks. You would see it in magazines - like, the equivalent of women's magazines, like seeing it in Cosmo nowadays. I think in Good Housekeeping, you would see stuff like that. Obviously, scientists were discussing it, so it was appearing in science journals. But it also made its way into common parlance, made its way into laws and regulations.

DONNELLA: Silvia said the eugenics movement took on different characteristics in different places.

MORENO-GARCIA: And obviously, when you come to places like Mexico and other states that were colonized, that question of race becomes very interesting because there's obviously a lot of race mixing going on in these nations. And so it's not the same sort of eugenics that they're handling in Great Britain, where there is this great anxiety about miscegenation. It's a little bit different. It's still, you know, highly racist, but it's not exactly the same kind of thought process that is going on. And I just always found it so interesting how Europeans view the colonies as a space of fear because it is that space where people are coming together and mixing.

DONNELLA: So in this book, all these terrible things are happening. And you start to realize that so much of what's happening is actually a product of racism, even things that seem really unrelated to race at first glance - which, again, helped me kind of understand this pandemic in a different way...

MERAJI: Right. We've talked a lot on the show about how this pandemic and this virus is able to spread and wreak havoc in such specific ways in large part because of the way that racism has shaped this country and the world.

DONNELLA: Exactly. And one of the things I really love about this book is that it makes racism feel as creepy and evil as it is. So it's got those kind of, like, "Get Out" vibes where you're suddenly able to process how very terrifying everything that's been super normalized actually is.

BATES: Now I'm interested in this book. But honestly, Leah, this sounds punishing. Why would anyone subject themselves to reading it?

DONNELLA: OK, fair. I know it does sound that way. But this book is actually also pretty thrilling. It shows this young woman refusing to give in and constantly fighting against all these forces that are trying to conquer her. And she's using her background as a form of strength. So without giving too much away, one of the things she's able to use to her advantage is that she speaks Spanish. And the head of her new household has never even bothered to learn Spanish.

MORENO-GARCIA: You know, sometimes people will say, well, it's unrealistic that they didn't learn Spanish, these colonizers. And let me tell you (laughter) - it's not unrealistic. Right?

When I was growing up and living in Mexico, at one point, I worked for an English-language newspaper. And we had an English-language newspaper precisely because there was an audience that could consume it and basically didn't know a word of Spanish. And I would sometimes, you know, meet people that would be like - oh, well, you know, I've lived in the country for 10 years; I haven't learned, you know, any Spanish at all. So that was not unrealistic. But it's also - like, in this case specifically, it is a desire to maintain a certain kind of purity.

DONNELLA: So I think the parts of this book that are really empowering are the ones that remind us that racism is actually often the weakness and that there is a lot of strength in holding onto our identities, our language, our culture - all of that.

MERAJI: Yeah, that's a great point. This book sounds really good...

DONNELLA: Oh, it's so good.

MERAJI: ...Like, right in my line of things that I love.

DONNELLA: It's also very scary, I should say. It is not for the faint of heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: So Shereen, has either of us convinced you? Are you team escapism, or are you team grim reality, darkness, gloom, misery?

DONNELLA: OK, all right. It's not all bad.

MERAJI: All right. Calm down, you two. You've both made very strong cases, and all these books sound really intriguing. I would read any of these books. But the time has come for me to admit this contest was rigged.

DONNELLA: What? Are you kidding me?

BATES: Why am I not surprised? 2020 strikes again.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

BATES: Karen.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Before the break, we were talking about escapist reads versus pandemic reads and which are better. Karen, you made the case for escapist reads - sexy, sometimes funny romance novels - and our editor, Leah, made the case for in-your-feelings, dive-right-into-it pandemic literature. And Leah actually just had to leave. She rushed off during the break to sing to her plants. If you all get it, then you follow us on IG. It's a little Easter egg for our IG audience. The rest of you need to follow us to get that. But all that to say, Leah's gone. So Karen, I can tell you who I think the real winner is now.

BATES: So she's not here. She forfeits, right? I win, right?

MERAJI: Jokes aside, jokes aside, I really - Karen, I really, really wanted there to be a winner. I'm a very competitive human being. You know this.

BATES: You are.

MERAJI: You've known me for a long time, over a decade. But while you two were off doing your thing, interviewing your authors, reading your books, I was talking to a professor who teaches African American literature at Columbia. Her name is Farah Jasmine Griffin, and she convinced me that the choice we're debating - escapism versus pandemic reads - it's just a false choice.

BATES: What?

MERAJI: Writers of color who are making the best work, they don't ignore reality. There is no escape.

FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Unfortunately, in my class, we don't get away from the problems. But we (laughter) - what we do is we find that it's the space of the community that we're building together that helps alleviate the stress. None of these texts provide escapist readings, although some of them, in their sheer beauty - in the beauty of the language, gives us a moment to remember that there's something in life that's also quite beautiful. And my students, for instance, love Gwendolyn Brooks. They love Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry, even the difficult poetry, because of what she does with language.

BATES: I would happily escape into Gwendolyn Brooks any day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Mm hmm. So for professor Griffin, it's a both-and, Karen. Like, with your books, for example, they sound escapist, but they have a ton of real life in them - gentrification, family tragedy, fear of commitment. And then Leah's books sound pandemic-y (ph), but they're actually kind of an escape. There's big, gorgeous houses in the woods. There's delectable descriptions of nature, mysterious strangers, the superpower of bilingualism.

BATES: I hate that you're a liar and a traitor, Shereen...

MERAJI: What?

BATES: ...But I can't argue with that logic 'cause it's true. All of these books encompass all of these things. Did professor Griffin have any recommendations besides the great Gwendolyn Brooks and her poetry?

MERAJI: Oh, she definitely did. She's been teaching African American literature for the past 30 years, so she had a list of recommendations. And she told me that the books on her syllabus, they are great places to start because they've always had staying power. No matter when they were written, they speak to something that's happening right now.

GRIFFIN: But I never anticipated this particular something. But I think that, you know, I think that any number of the things that we read - this year, we read the short stories of Richard Wright, "Uncle Tom's Children." And those short stories matter because they show natural disaster like a flood and how a flood impacts the young Black people of the story differently than it does the moneyed whites.

We read James Baldwin, you know, "If Beale Street Could Talk," a young man who's wrongfully convicted of a crime that he did not commit or just a kind of encounter with a police officer. What I love about Baldwin is he always provides an alternative in the same text. So he'll have, you know, the kind of police officer who we would expect a young Black man to encounter, but then he has a community of people who support and protect a young Black couple in love that include an immigrant store owner or a man who rents him an apartment, a Jewish landlord, or a Spanish-speaking restaurant owner. So he gives us both community that stands up against the brutality. Anything Baldwin always is relevant - "No Name In The Street" or "Fire Next Time" or "If Beale Street Could Talk."

I think, because race is so at the core of so much in the United States, that those books, the best of them, speak to the moment that we're in.

MERAJI: Karen, one of the authors who was not on professor Griffin's list was the late Octavia Butler, who we've talked about on her books' episodes...

BATES: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...The phenomenal science fiction writer from right here in California. But professor Griffin said that absolutely had to change as soon as COVID happened. So she added Octavia Butler's "Parable Of The Sower" to her reading list.

GRIFFIN: When we were forced to go home, I put her on there. And I said, let's spend two weeks reading her because she's writing about all kinds of catastrophes. And we were in the middle of a catastrophe, (laughter) you know? And she's writing about political catastrophe, economic catastrophe, environmental catastrophe. And the protagonist of that story is a young woman. And so I thought my students might identify with her youth.

And she's creating a religion, basically, and a religion that addresses questions about the moment that she's in. And the only constant in her life and in that moment is change. So that becomes the central religious and philosophical principle, to be ready for change, which means we have to be improvisatory, you know? And it provided for some fascinating, reflective discussions both about the novel, as insightful as any that I've read from a literary critic, and also about our moment.

MERAJI: Professor Griffin gave her students an assignment after they read "Parable Of The Sower." She wanted them to think about a new world and what they hoped it would look like after all this. And she had them write about what they'd want to take into this new world with them, what they'd want to leave behind, what changes they'd like to see on the other side.

What has really stuck with you from reading all of what they wrote? What is still with you, something that really moved you when you read it?

GRIFFIN: One, that, you know, these are young people who are very high achievers. That's why they're at Columbia. And I think that they all became aware of how busy and full their lives were - not full in a good way, but just busy trying to achieve that stopped them from making the kinds of human connections that were important to them. What they really missed was being in each other's company.

And so what also moved me was the ways that they wanted to commit to - not just giving, you know, lip service to working against climate change or racial injustice, but to really doing something, to joining an organization or founding organizations or being involved in a reading group or teaching each other. I mean, it was just very nice to watch a kind of awareness flower and then a commitment in terms of what they wanted to do. And they actually inspired me. I mean, when class was over, I went immediately to - back to my own writing and thought, I need to do what I'm telling them to do.

BATES: Well, Shereen, I think that's a great place to end this episode. But before we go, have you read something you'd like to share with our listeners?

MERAJI: Well, thank you for asking, Bates.

BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: In fact, I just finished a wonderful novel the night before we recorded this. It's called "Three-Fifths" by John Vercher.

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MERAJI: It's his debut novel. And it takes place in a Rust Belt town in the dead of winter. And it really digs into that old adage, life is hard. And racism makes it brutal.

BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: There is a hate crime committed by a white supremacist. All these people's lives end up intersecting. And I don't want to give anything in this book away because it's one of those novels that has you holding your breath the entire time. You have a knot in your stomach. And you won't feel that if I tell you everything about it. But I'm just going to say it was an excruciating and beautiful read - a both-and, as professor Griffin would say. And I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes a movie. And once again, if you missed it the first time, it's called "Three-Fifths" by John Vercher. But I definitely think I need a romance next with a lot of very detailed sex scenes (laughter).

BATES: Then you will love my book, Shereen, I guarantee it - more than anything Leah recommended.

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MERAJI: That's our show. But listeners, we want to hear from you. You know we do. We always do. What books have you been reading to help you through this pandemic? And what are you? Are you team escapism or team pandemic reads? Send us an email with the subject line quarantine reads and let us know.

BATES: Subscribe to CODE SWITCH wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @NPRCodeSwitch. And sign up for a newsletter at npr.org/newsletters. It's current and a little cheeky.

MERAJI: It is because Karen writes it most of the time. And she is the cheekiest.

BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: The books we recommended today, by the way - get out a pen. I'm going to give you a little time to grab your pen or grab your phone so you can type it in. Here we go. The books are "Real Men Knit" by Kwana Jackson, "Catherine House" by Elisabeth Thomas, "Take A Hint, Dani Brown," by Talia Hibbert and "Mexican Gothic" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and "Three-Fifths" by John Vercher.

BATES: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and edited by Leah Donnella - the pandemic reader who you heard earlier - and you, Shereen.

MERAJI: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza. Gene will be back next week. Until then, I'm still Shereen Marisol Meraji.

BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See you.

MERAJI: Peace.

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