#readharder2019: Circe

#readharder2019: Circe

I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple weeks ago, but it has been a pretty intense couple weeks over here, so I’m late on this review! This was my Read Harder 2019 book for the category of “a book of folklore or mythology.”

This book was exactly the powerful witch goddess narrative I needed in my life.

(There’ll be spoilers here. Also, content note for referencing rape.)

When I was young, and then when I was older, and then still when I was as old as I am now, so basically always, I have loved mythology. I loved all the old pantheons, but I also grew up in colonialism and so the pantheon I knew best was the Greek. But even though I knew the name Circe, I wasn’t as familiar with her as I was with others.

But Madeline Miller made her real.

The book is phenomenal, beautiful, moving. I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Perdita Weeks brings so much warmth and emotion to Circe’s telling of her own story. (This first person narration is the exact right choice for this book.)

More than anything else, I loved the complexity of the relationships. 

Particularly the relationships of divine women living under patriarchy. The depiction of lateral and relational violence between women was woven throughout the book, but there was a subtext of making visible the power relations that forced women to act in complicity with patriarchy against each other. This was never more evident than in Circe’s relationship with her sister Pasiphaë (although her relationship with Scylla is a close, close second). I appreciate that Circe is not somehow above these pressures toward complicity, and I appreciate also that once she realizes what is happening, she resists it. This feels more hopeful to me than a narrative of someone who is just always above these pressures.

But it isn’t just the relationships with other women that are represented with complexity and nuance. Circe’s relationships with divine men are also vivid and complex. And, throughout this book, the operations of power are made visible. The way Glaucus’ behaviour changes as his social standing changes, changes that are echoed by her brother Aeetes once he gains his kingdom. Both of these relationships force Circe to re-examine her attachments, and her trust. Her relationship with her father is also interesting, especially as she learns to see him with less devotion and more insight. And her relationship with Hermes situates her as… not an equal in power or in social standing, but certainly an active and intentional partner in the relationship. I appreciated that contrast, of having at least an equal say even if not equal social footing, in her relationship with Hermes as compared with the other relationships with men. All of these are relationships with other gods.

And, of course, there are her relationships with mortal men. Daedalus and Odysseus and Telemachus – all the name dropping was delightful, but the fleshing out of relationships with each of them was just so well-done. (I loved Daedalus. Crush level: mega. Not as mega as my crush on Circe though.)

Power is a significant focus of the book. Circe’s first interaction with a mortal man is Glaucus before she changes him into a god, and they have a gentle, enjoyable friendship. But after Glaucus, after Circe is banished to Aeaea, Circe meets mortal sailors and they attack her, try to rob her, and the captain tries to rape her. Circe transforms the men into pigs. For many, many years, men come to her island and most of them are transformed into pigs. If they attempt to rob her, if they attempt to harm her, if they look like they might – pigs.

In her relationship with Odysseus, they share an agreement that distrust is often the safer and better approach. Both Odysseus and Circe have harmed and killed many, not all of whom deserved it. And I found this interaction interesting, because Odysseus moves through the patriarchal world with the power of being a man, and when he opts for distrust, there is a lot of systemic power behind it. Circe learned to move through the world with distrust because she does not have that same power under patriarchy, and it was the violence of patriarchy that taught her to distrust men. But Circle does have power. She’s a god. She can turn men into pigs when they try to harm her.

I don’t know where I take this noticing. It seems like there is something here about power and how we wield power, power in context, the difference between structural power and situational power. In writing this review, I read a lot of other reviews, and I agree with the assessment by Electric Lit (content note in the link for some ableist language), that Circe does not consistently challenge the definition or meaning of power, it just grants that same hierarchical power to Circe rather than allowing it to stay with men. This is exactly the thing that nudged at me, that made me think about white feminism and cis feminism and all the other feminisms that have claimed power (and yay! I love that!) but have not gone on to challenge the structures of power fundamentally. This leaves so many other vulnerable groups without access to this claimed power.

This absolutely was the power witch narrative I needed in my life, but it is also imperfect. There’s so much that is done so well in terms of demonstrating how power operates, and how patriarchy pushes the marginalized into competition with each other and complicity with the very system that is harming them (something that also applies to other systems of privilege and dominance – think of capitalism). But I wish it went further.

One part of the book that I keep returning to in my thoughts is the small interaction between Circe and Prometheus. It’s just a short interaction, but Circe returns to it many times when she’s telling her own story. It’s formative for her. Prometheus shows her that there is another way to be; that there are alternative stories available to her, despite how rigid the lives of the Titans and Olympians are. If any part of the book does challenge existing notions of power, it is Prometheus and Circe’s reflections on him. He took power from the gods, and chose not to hold onto it despite the cost to himself. He gave the power away and paid for it. I appreciated this. I wanted more from this – I wanted her to visit Prometheus on his rock, or to expand on this. It felt so important, but always just at the edge of my understanding. I just wanted more from this. But I think the fact that there wasn’t more was a wise authorial choice – it keeps me coming back, and even throughout the book I kept wondering.

Madeline Miller stays relatively close to the source material (I know, because every time a new name was dropped or action described, I paused the audio and headed to google!) but despite the fact that so many parts of the story were familiar already, the story was fresh and exciting. And feminist! The whole book just gave me happy feminist feels – patriarchy is apparent throughout, but it is also critiqued throughout. And I also appreciated the fact that the book acknowledges the presence and advancement of other cultures. Although the book stays within the Greek gods, there are references to other cultures and other pantheons – just small, but enough to alert the reader “hey, the privileging of this storyline and the way it is taken up in Enlightenment discourse and then in colonization… pay attention. There are other gods. There are other cultures. Those cultures are interesting and advanced enough that Daedalus wants to learn from them.” I appreciated this.

And I know I’ve already mentioned how much I loved the representation of relationships between women, but I need to take a moment to specifically appreciate the relationship between Penelope and Circe. This relationship happens at the end of the book, and it is such a stark contrast to the earlier relationships with women. Here, instead of being turned against each other by patriarchal power, two powerful women are able to join together to continue a legacy of resisting patriarchal power. Like Prometheus, this is another example where power is redefined and challenged.

When Penelope takes on the mantle of Witch of Aeaea, I almost cried.

Penelope and Circe are also both mothers. Motherhood is an important theme throughout the book, also. I appreciated that motherhood was not easy for Circe, and that the book challenged the idea that a person is either soft and warm and motherly and falls easily into the role, or cold and distant and abusive. Circe struggles with motherhood, struggles with how to raise Telegonus, and still loves him. She is still an attentive and caring mother even though it is not smooth or easy. This isn’t a narrative that I see reflected very often.

This will definitely be a re-read for me. I highly recommend it, and would love to chat about it if you end up reading it!


You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!

My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”
My review of The Widows of Malabar Hill for “a cozy mystery.”

#readharder2019: The Widows of Malabar Hill

At the end of last month I finished up the audiobook of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, for the category of “a cozy mystery.”

February was exceptionally busy (and high pain) for me, so I was pretty distracted through many parts of the book, but I listened while I was doing admin work and laundry and dishes and driving. I’m pretty excited about having finished a third book in the month of February!

So, first impressions:

I loved this book.

I would not have identified myself as a fan of the mystery genre when I started the Read Harder challenge. It’s not a genre that I seek out, but this book inspired such a strong sense of nostalgia in me – I remembered many hours spent watching Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and Inspector Morse and Cadfael and Lovejoy with my family, and I connected to that sense of delight and curiosity that accompanies a mystery. It had been years since I thought about any of those shows. (With the obvious exception that I squealed delightedly at seeing Ian McShane as Odin in American Gods.)

This experience of realizing that I do enjoy a genre was really interesting to me, because one of the core principles of narrative therapy is the idea that lives are “multi-storied” – that there are many true stories of a single life, and they might contradict each other but they can still coexist. I would have not identified myself as a mystery lover, but I discovered (rediscovered) that I do actually love mysteries, and I have loved mysteries for a long time! I love Elementary, but I had considered my love to be more about the gender politics and my epic crush on both Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller.

This was such a lovely invitation to become close to parts of my history that I had grown distant from, and it was really cool to see some of the principles I’ve learned about in the process of becoming a narrative practitioner become so clear in my own life.

Even beyond this little narrative adventure, the book itself is delightful.

Perveen Mistry, a Parsi and the first woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay, is fierce and feminist, and her character was inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to pass the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford.

One of my favourite things about the book was the focus on cultural context. Perveen is critical of British colonial rule, and her politics are woven throughout the book. She also talks about the different cultural groups present in Bombay and Calcutta (the two cities where the book takes place).

One thing that I felt was missing was a robust class analysis. There’s not much of it, and like many books and movies and shows, taking the economic mostly out of the picture makes it easier to bring forward other issues. I understand the benefits of locating all of the main characters in the upper class, and I did appreciate that despite the setting, there were moments of class analysis. Most notably, I appreciated when Perveen responds to a British woman’s question about safety, based on the fact that most major crimes in Bombay were committed by servants, by noting how many of India’s people live in poverty (meaning, most of the people in the country are poor, so of course most of the people committing crimes are poor), and how they are more likely to be arrested and convicted than a wealthier person who did the same thing. I am always here for a call-out of carceral injustice.

The gender politics in the book were central. A significant portion of the book takes place in the Farid zenana, where the Muslim widows (of the title) observe purdah (separation of the sexes). There are moments when Perveen (and by extension the author, and by invitation the reader) expresses sadness and concern for the purdahnashin, for their lack of freedom and access. However, the book resists leaning too hard into this perspective, challenging both Perveen and the reader by revealing the widows to each have more agency and more insight than anticipated. And the Muslim women are not singled out as uniquely vulnerable to exploitation – the Parsi tradition of secluding menstruating women is also prominent, and critiqued.

(Reading this book as a white, 21st century Canadian, there is an easy invitation to locate myself in a position of moral judgement when it comes to these cultural practices, but I tried as a reader, and will try as a reviewer, to refuse that position. Christianity, which is my own cultural background, has its own long and ongoing history of violent misogyny. I do think that there is a real risk of readers in my social context engaging in judgmental voyeurship, but that’s a problem with white supremacy and ongoing colonialism, rather than a problem with the book itself.)

Although British colonial power is evident throughout the narrative (Indian Independence Day wasn’t until 1947, and the book takes place between 1916 and 1921), the focus is not on either British control or British customs. Sujata Massey consistently brings a focus to the long cultural traditions of the Indian communities, particularly the Parsi communities (Perveen talks about her ancestors arriving hundreds of years prior from Persia) and the Muslim communities. This pushes the British out of the center of the narrative, and creates a sense of complex and ongoing Indian culture.

I really enjoyed this book. February was a difficult and emotionally draining month, and The Widows of Malabar Hill was a welcome lightness threaded through the background. (And the narrator was great. Very highly recommended.)


You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!

My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”

#readharder2019: Fifteen Dogs

This is an expanded review. Patreon supporters got my first impressions last week! You can also get early access to most posts (and also be a major part of supporting my work!) by joining the Patreon.

I finished reading Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis for the category of ‘a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.’

I did not love it.

I love dogs, and I found the story bleak and intensely focused on dominance as the core defining concern of dogs. There were so many references to dominance behaviours and no references to calming signals or the more complex social actions of dogs. I found this frustrating – as if the author read Cesar Millan and The Monks of New Skete and skipped all the amazing animal behaviourists who could have added nuance and depth to the canine behaviour piece.

This focus on dominance irked me for multiple reasons, and I’ll try to explain them.

First, it demonstrated an unsophisticated and outdated understanding of dog behaviour. For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell was published over ten years ago, and dominance theory itself (the idea of the “alpha” among dogs, based on the “alpha” among wolves) is an unfunny joke based on poorly collected and understood data and consistently debunked over the last many decades. (Note: I am not saying there are no social hierarchies among dogs. There are, and they’ve been studied. But they are not nearly as simple or as harsh as this book presents.)

The book felt like Lord of the Flies, an uncomfortable and nihilistic read that seems to offer a sharp critique of humanity by imagining the worst of what we’re capable of, but that actually misses the mark by assuming that the worst we’re capable of is our default position.

That the dogs would so quickly jump to killing each other made me raise an eyebrow – both dogs and humans are aggressively social. (And particularly, we are social with each other.)

And the weird gender politics, males somehow inevitably dominant, just seemed irritatingly predictable. The dogs’ assumptions about human hierarchies made this particularly clear, and the lack of complexity or nuance in their understanding of hierarchies was sometimes meant to be humorous but actually came across as yet more frustratingly simplistic writing.

Dominance, theorized in this simplistic and linear way, is easy. We have so many templates for this, including Jordan Peterson’s patently ridiculous lobster theory. But, although social dominance absolutely does exist (in both dogs and humans), it is not so simple or so linear. Rather, it is complex, contextual, and conditional. Jordan Peterson is, in fact, a big part of the reason this book rubbed me so much the wrong way. Because although I could appreciate Alexis’ use of language and the depth of character that he gave some of the dogs, I could see the framework underneath the story – a naturalizing of dominance and rigid social hierarchies – and this framework is one that cooperates all too easily with existing systems of injustice and oppression. It’s the whole foundation of the alt-right’s assertion that men, and straights, and white folks, are inherently meant to be at the top of the social hierarchy. Barf. (And I recognize that this book was published before Jordan Peterson rose to prominence, but I read the book in 2019’s context, despite its 2015 origin.)

The dogs deserve better. I wanted to see better for them – to see a more compassionate representation of who dogs are, and who we are when we are reflected in dogs. I wanted a story in which the worst of us is not the core or the default, in which our drive towards dominance and hierarchy and violence is recognized as one part of our nature, not the foundation of our nature.

I wanted something hopeful, possible.

Instead, the book seemed endlessly obsessed with dominance and hierarchy and violence. The few dogs who did show prosocial behaviours were quickly killed off, and this seemed like such a mistake. Dogs are more than this, and I’m not simply anthropomorphizing when I say this. Dogs have complex social hierarchies, and also demonstrate prosocial and even empathetic behaviours. We, humans, are also more than this.

Having said all that, there were also really lovely moments. The relationship between Majnoun and Nira (when not being made weird by Majnoun’s assumptions of hierarchy in her relationship with her husband), and between Prince and his new language, moved me.

But overall, I didn’t love it at all. I’m glad it was short, and I didn’t find it offensive, but I didn’t love it.

I am 4/24 into the challenge! I feel quite proud of myself.


You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!

My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”

#readharder2019: Washington Black

#readharder2019: Washington Black

This is an expanded version of the review I posted to Patreon earlier this month. If you want to support my work and read early versions of many of my projects, you can join the community here!

Content note: talking about racism and white supremacy

For the first time in… I don’t even know how long!… I finished a substantial novel in a week. That novel was Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black.

There were a few factors that made it possible, and I want to acknowledge that this isn’t always possible (for me or for anyone else dealing with a notable lack of time). The most important factor was that I spent a lot of time in the passenger seats of cars, so I had a solid 10 hours to read. I also decided to devote some time on the weekend to reading, so I spent a few hours in coffee shops reading when I could have been working instead.

It meant the next week was a bit stressful, and now two weeks out from it I’m still trying to get caught up on some of the work I put off, but it was worth it.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan was so very worth it.

If you have the chance to read this book, take it. And be prepared to be pulled into this world, which contains so much nuance and life and depth and joy and pain.

I’m working through Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy workbook this month, and reading Esi Edugyan’s novel, which holds a mirror up to slavery-era white supremacy, and to the white supremacy that remains in our current culture.

In this mirror, I saw my own complicity with, and cooperation with, ongoing patterns of privilege and domination. I see in myself Christopher Wilde’s self-serving white savior thoughts and actions. I see in myself, and in the context around me, so many of the harms perpetuated by well-meaning white people in the book. And I see the blatant and violence racism of the book still present in the world around me, even the world very close to me.

Washington says, “How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those who did the saving.”

This is deep and relevant and contemporary knowledge. In the last two weeks I have watched a community that I was part of absolutely combust in white backlash, and I have been so moved by the discourse that invites to consider not how we can be inclusive but rather how we can challenge and stand against exclusion.

“Being inclusive” puts us in Christopher Wilde’s well-heeled shoes. It puts us on the side of “those who do the saving.” We share our spaces. We “pass the mic” (because we maintain control of the mic).

Instead, we have to accept the invitation that Black and Indigenous theorists have been saying for generations. We have to recognize that there is not “those who are there to be saved, and those who do the saving.” These hierarchies are hierarchies of harm.

The book was beautifully written, with rich and evocative metaphors. The characters were written with such care and generosity. Washington’s experiences, and his reflections on the world around him and his own place in the world, are so carefully and skillfully shared with the reader. It’s heartbreaking and heartening and absolutely gorgeous.

I was especially moved by how compassionately Edugyan treated each of the characters, no matter how misguided or actively harmful their actions may have been. There are monsters in the book, absolutely. There is no doubt that many of the white characters are deeply influenced by and actively complicit in genocidal white supremacy. But even the most monstrous of these characters is also a human, a person who has hopes, who feels love and gentleness, full of complexity and a desire to find happiness, to be seen as a good and worthy person. This makes the book infinitely more powerful, because it resists creating a simple (and therefore easily dismissed) stereotype of racist villainy. Instead, the violence and inexcusable harm is committed by people who are so much like me.

Esi Edugyan is masterful in her storytelling, and she is part of a long lineage of masterful storytelling by Black women.

I am so thankful for the generous work of Black women. For the visionary work of Afrofuturists and Black feminists. I am so thankful for the invitation to see the world with the clarity and the active hope of writers like Esi Edugyan, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, adrienne maree brown, and so many others.

This is the book I read for the category of “A book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.” Washington Black won the 2018 Giller Prize (a second Giller win for her!). It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize.

You can find it here at Shelf Life Books.


You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!

My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”

#readharder2019: Binti

My second book for the Book Riot: Read Harder 2019 challenge was much easier than the first! (You can read that first post here.)

For the second book, in the category of “A book by an author of colour set in or about space,” I read Nnedi Okorafor’s book Binti, the first in a trilogy (link is to Shelf Life books). It’s a short book, only 96 pages, and it was fantastic. Okorafor is a Nigamerican author (a term she uses rather than Nigerian-American, as a way to honour her dual heritage). She has won numerous awards – most of her books have won or been nominated for at least one award.

Check out her TED talk on her website, which includes an exerpt from Binti. She says:

As the story progresses, she becomes not other, but more. This idea of leaving but bringing and then becoming more is at one of the hearts of Afrofuturism, or you can simply call it a different kind of science fiction.

Sci fi is one of my first literary loves, and there are, as Okorafor notes, many ancestors of science fiction (though I didn’t recognize this until I was quite a bit older). Not all science fiction comes from white men. (Nor did science fiction originate with white men – Mary Shelley, of course, but even before her One Thousand and One Nights includes proto-science fiction.)

Regardless of the origins, I love science fiction, and one thing that I have learned in a lifetime of reading sci fi and fantasy is that very often, the best authors of speculative fiction are people who look at the world from unexpected angles. And you know who does that very well? People who have experienced oppression and survival under unjust systems. Folks with privilege have more time and support for their writing, but marginalized authors can often more easily imagine stories that move us beyond our standard paradigms.

I feel like I need to preemptively state that obviously straight, white, abled, neurotypical, educated men can write good speculative fiction. I loved the entire Ender series, and when I read Ender’s Game in elementary school it was mind-blowing. (I won’t read the series again, most likely, because Orson Scott Card has politics that are so far outside what I consider just or remotely acceptable, but that didn’t stop me loving his work before I learned about him as a person.)

And, of course, of course, Terry Pratchett’s fiction is profoundly concerned with issues of justice, and Neil Gaiman is always and forever a favourite. American Gods is comfort reading, and so is Neverwhere. And Pratchett’s books have gotten me through more than one depression.

But still. I will give my time and energy and money to marginalized authors, as often as possible, as intentionally as possible. (This is another reason I am so irked at myself for my initial mistake in the first category!)

So, Binti.

I loved so much about this book. The vivid descriptions of the material world – the smells, tastes, colours, and especially the textures – were captivating. Binti’s experience of being stereotyped and discriminated against both by her fellow humans and by the alien Meduse was so moving.

Binti is part of the Himba tribe, and one of my favourite details was that the Himba people in the book, based on the Himba in Namibia, excel at mathematics. This feels important, because it directly counters the racist assumptions of the other humans in the book, and it also counters the racist preconceptions of readers regarding Indigenous communities with non-colonial cultures.

I also really appreciated how the book talked about conflict, honour, and how we make assumptions about other cultures. For such a short book, there was so much to reflect on.

It was super good, and I’m hoping to read the rest of the trilogy, too.

(Though next on my list is tackling another category in the challenge. Next up, a book by a woman and/or an author of colour that won a literary award in 2018. I’m already halfway through Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, and I’m loving it.)

#readharder2019: A book of non-violent true crime

#readharder2019: A book of non-violent true crime

Image description: A screenshot of the Book Riot #ReadHarder Journal, with one category checked. The category is ‘A book of non-violent true crime’ and the title listed is ‘When They Call You A Terrorist.’

This is an expanded and updated version of a post that was available on my Patreon last week.

I’m participating in the Book Riot Read Harder 2019 challenge this year, which means I’m going to attempt to read books in 24 specific categories.

  • The categories are:
  • An epistolary novel or collection of letters
  • An alternate history novel
  • A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018
  • A humor book
  • A book by a journalist or about journalism
  • A book by an AOC set in or about space
  • An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
  • An #ownvoices book set in Oceania
  • A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads
  • A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman
  • A book of manga
  • A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
  • A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
  • A cozy mystery
  • A book of mythology or folklore
  • An historical romance by an AOC
  • A business book
  • A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
  • A book of nonviolent true crime
  • A book written in prison
  • A comic by an LGBTQIA creator
  • A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009
  • A self-published book
  • A collection of poetry published since 2014

My motivation for joining the challenge is that I love books, especially science fiction and fantasy books, but for many years now I have been primarily engaging with academic texts and non-fiction. I’ve become quite disconnected from a habit of reading regularly, and reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for a specific productivity and work-related purpose – to put together a workshop, complete a paper, or plan a project).

I miss the relationship that I used to have with books, and I’m hoping that this will invite me back into a practice that I used to cherish and that has been lost to brain fog, academics, over-scheduling, fibro pain (have you ever considered the weight of a paperback? Me neither, until fibro!), and the scattered attention that so many of us seem to experience when we’re operating under pressure.

One of the categories for the challenge is “non-violent true crime.”

For some reason, I decided to start with this category, and looked up recommended titles in the category. I’m not really a “true crime” sorta person. I much prefer… honestly, almost any other genre, with the possible exception of heterosexual romance novels. Most of the recommendations for non-violent true crime suggested “white collar” crimes. Financial crime.

I downloaded the audiobook for Billion Dollar Whale, which is the story of Jho Low.

According to The New Yorker:

If you like global intrigue, financial crime, wealth porn, and absurdity, “Billion Dollar Whale,” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is for you. It’s the story of Jho Low, an enterprising businessman from Malaysia who used his social connections to the country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak to transform himself into an international financier. According to Wright and Hope’s account, Low persuaded Razak to create an investment fund, 1MDB, financed with government money, which Low managed behind the scenes. Goldman Sachs and other banks helped raise ten billion dollars for the fund. Then approximately five billion dollars of the money disappeared, prompting an international scandal.

I don’t particularly like any of those things, but anyway, that’s the book I picked. I thought this would be a throw-away category for me, since it’s not a category I was very interested or invested in. I planned to pick something with lots of recommendations, hope it’s decent, get it out of the way.

I made it five chapters in and couldn’t finish. I was frustrated by the way the authors described Low as “the Asian” and “the Malaysian” constantly, a casual linguistic othering that served as a constant reminder that the anticipated audience was neither Asian nor Malaysian. I was frustrated by the way they described women, particularly groups of women hired as entertainment, as “the girls,” casual misogyny to match the casual racism. And I was really frustrated at the use of racist phrases like describing a banker as “going off the reservation” when he operated outside of standard practice. These phrases are not neutral – they are part of, and contribute to, ongoing anti-Indigenous violence and they reference the genocidal practices of colonial governments creating reserves in ways that normalize rather than stand against this violence. This is not even remotely okay.

I gave up on the book, and started looking for an alternative.

I already knew that the blog posts were going to suggest more financial/white collar crime, and I knew I wasn’t interested. As I worked through my response to Billion Dollar Whale, I started thinking about the category itself, and after this reflection (which really should have happened before I picked a book), I think it’s worth challenging the idea of financial crime as “non-violent.” This is particularly true when it is theft by the wealthy, theft that doesn’t require breaking a door or making a threat. The only reason that this kind of “white collar” crime is labelled non-violent is because we, as a capitalist culture, have become adept at ignoring structural and systemic violence. (This echoes the insight that Emma McMurphy offered in her post for the Feminism from the Margins series, about how the structural and systemic violence of patriarchy is rarely recognized as violence.)

But despite our unwillingness to see it, capitalism is violent, the wealth gap is violent, and the ferrying back and forth of money between members of the ultra wealthy does have violent impacts on the poor and the marginalized. Nothing about capitalism is non-violent. Were the actions of the banks that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis non-violent? The effects were certainly violent, but not a violence that we readily recognize.

I realized that within this “throw-away” category, there was a critical question that I needed to engage – what counts as violence? What counts as non-violence? And, most pressing, most political, most obvious – what counts as crime, and how does this intersect with justice?

So, what kinds of crimes are non-violent?

After thinking about it for a long time, I came to the conclusion that crimes of identity are truly non-violent. Existing while inhabiting a criminalized identity (at various times and in various places this might be as a trans person, a Black person, a biracial person, an Indigenous person, a queer person) or participating in a criminalized culture (Black cultures and Indigenous cultures, particularly, have been criminalized at various times and in various ways and still are, to varying degrees), are non-violent crimes.

They are only crimes because of violent laws.

So, I narrowed my potential reading list down to books about refusing to cooperate with violent laws. And, since the category was specifically “non-violent” true crime, I was looking for books about refusing to cooperate but not books about violent resistance. (Even though I do think that violent resistance is often not only valid but necessary – how do we define self-defense when the violence being faced is structural or systemic? More hard questions.)

I started looking for books about existing in criminalized identities, and resisting and surviving under violent conditions. I was (and am – please send recommendations!) interested in things like:

– Stories of being queer in places and at times when queerness was criminalized.

– Stories of being trans in places and at times when transness was criminalized.

– Stories of Indigenous and Black cultural preservation when this was criminalized.

– Stories of interracial, non-heterosexual, or otherwise consenting-but-criminalized relationships in places and at times when these were criminalized.

– Stories of women learning to read and write in places and at times when this was criminalized.

– Stories of civil disobedience in response to unjust laws.

And I was/am particularly interested in these stories within colonial contexts – one thing that really irked me in Billion Dollar Whale was that reading it felt like being complicit with xenophobic violence. Why was I reading about a Malaysian man who stole billions from governments, banks, and Hollywood? Why was this the story that I ended up with, when there are so many other stories that do not participate in the “nefarious foreigner” narrative? There’s no virtue in pretending that only white folks behave in horrible ways, but if I’m only going to read one true crime book, why is it this one? I didn’t want to end up there again, so in this category, I was looking for books that didn’t offload the horror of state-sanctioned homophobic, or transphobic, or misogynistic violence onto Black and Brown cultures and bodies.

Basically, I decided that the only true crime I want to read is the “Be Gay, Do Crimes” kind.

What I ended up with is a book that’s been on my shelf for almost a year now – When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele (link is to the title at Shelf Life Books). Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and her description of the criminalization of Black bodies and the constant intrusion of violent policing into Black lives is both riveting and heartbreaking.

None of what she’s sharing in this book is new information – communities of colour, including Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, as well as trans communities, disabled communities, and so many other marginalized communities who face state violence, have been speaking about this violence for generations. She evokes the long history of criminalization, from the “war on drugs and gangs” (which was always, and was intentionally, a war on communities of colour), to the labeling of young Black men as “superpredators” and the fracturing of Black families that results from mass incarceration and welfare laws that penalize mothers for having a man present in the household even if together their income is still far below the poverty line. One of the incredible strengths of the book is how Khan-Cullors tells the deeply personal story of her own life, and the lives of her family members (both biological and chosen), and also ties this story into the broader story of the system within which they live and love and organize.

And the discussion of organizing is nuanced and multi-storied. She demonstrates how her communities are tied to long legacies of anti-oppressive action, and about the impact of under-funding and lack of structural support that is countered by an incredible wealth of community support and care. This book provides a glimpse into what collective action and a commitment to community care might mean, not only on a social level but also within intimate relationships. One of the most moving recurring themes in the book is the role of the extended community in supporting and caring for individuals within relationship, including restorative justice practices that allow relationships to transform and heal after a breakup, or following injustice within the relationship.

She also talks about the lasting impact of the Black Panthers and their community-focused actions, such as starting school breakfast programs. The Black Panthers were speaking out about racist police violence decades ago, and the work of Black Lives Matter builds on this legacy. It has been generations of work, collective action directed at addressing state violence, and the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the lives of Black Americans (and, as she points out, Black Canadians also). Despite the fact that this isn’t new, it is necessary to pay attention to it. It’s easy for white folks (like me) to let it slip from sight, because our white supremacist and racist culture makes it so easy to look away. Khan-Cullors tells the story in a way that highlights the persistence of this state violence and the many ways in which Black bodies are policed and dehumanized, but that doesn’t contribute to thin stories of Black lives – the book tells the story of a long history of violence, but it also tells the story of a long history of resistance. The book is full of descriptions of her communities existing peacefully within their own contexts, building collaborative and restorative collectives and families, and having violence thrust into their lives. The violence is present throughout the book, but so are the stories of love, joy, companionship, and resourcefulness within her communities.

It is a book that is both joyful and angry.

I’m really glad I switched books, and I’m glad I made the original mistake because it forced me to seriously consider the boundaries and contours of what constitutes “non-violent true crime.”