Complex identities: My "Bookprint" post

As a new contributor to the Scholastic On Our Minds blog, I was asked to write a “Bookprint” post detailing the five books that have shaped my love for reading. To be honest, it was easy to highlight these books; these are the books that have shaped the way I think and affected the way I treat myself, relate to others and honor my identity/culture. They have inspired confidence within me and helped me gain a better understanding of humanity and its complexities. Hope you enjoy and pick one of these up the next time you need a good read!

1. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel  

As a child, I do not remember being read to often outside of school. My mother, for most of my childhood, was a full-time housewife catering to 3 kids very close in age and my father was a working dad. But when my dad or mom had a chance, and the energy, they always read Tikki Tikki Tembo to my siblings and I. Tikki Tikki Tembo is a retold folktale set in ancient China about a young boy named Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo ("The Most Wonderful Thing in the Whole Wide World") and his little brother Chang ("Little or Nothing"). By ancient Chinese custom, the second-born son was given an unimportant, short name but the family honored their first-born son with a longer, significant name. In the story, Chang falls into a well; Tikki Tikki Tembo is able to save him quickly by running to the Old Man with the Ladder. Later in the story, Tikki Tikki Tembo falls into the well. This time, Chang has a much harder time saving his brother. The length of his brother’s name makes it harder for him to communicate that he needs help. The near-death of Tikki Tikki Tembo changes him as a person. The book ultimately serves as an origin myth about why the Chinese now choose shorter names for their kin. As a child, I loved this book because it was fun to read and added a pinch of drama to a children’s story. But revisiting this story as an adult and reading it to my niece and nephews, I teach them that a person’s name carries meaning and is to be respected, not shortened or ridiculed. It may seem like an insignificant lesson but I think it can teach us to respect and learn from cultures that we may be unfamiliar with.

2. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

In middle school, I love the Scholastic Book Fairs (what a surprise, right?). It’s where I purchased most of my books but regardless of that fact, I never felt emotionally attached to the books I chose for myself. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I actually fell in LOVE with a book. My Literature teacher, Ms. Cowherd, was a huge influence in helping me discover my love for reading. She assigned The Outsiders as a book report project. I remember reading The Outsiders, and for the first time feeling an emotional connection to the characters. The plot was so vivid to me; I could visualize the characters and see the story playing out in my mind. It was love at first read. It’s what influenced me to continue picking up books.

3. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies is a historical novel that lends a fictional voice to the four Mirabal sisters: Minerva, Dedé, Maria Teresa, and Patria during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Both of my parents emigrated here from the Dominican Republic so this is an integral story to our country’s history. During Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, he killed 10,000 Haitians and 30,000 Dominicans; his focus was to eliminate Blacks from the island of Hispaniola. After the Mirabal sisters realized the truth about Trujillo and his “leadership,” they joined the revolution against him. They eventually become his greatest opposition and were harassed, persecuted, and imprisoned because of it. Trujillo eventually ordered the assassination of the Mirabal sisters, killing Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria on November 25, 1940. Their death was made to look accidental. Trujillo was assassinated six months later. This story lends to one of the most traumatizing periods in the Dominican Republic; the effects of Trujillo’s regime still grip the Dominican Republic and Haiti today. In the Time of the Butterflies is the first work of historical and feminist literature I read. I credit my journey into feminism and embracing my Afro-Latina roots to the Mirabal sisters. They were/are real-life heroines; they taught me so much about what it means to be a resilient woman and stand up for what you believe is right, regardless of the cost. Note: On December 17, 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, in honor of the Mirabal sisters. 

 4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz was the first author who made me feel like I wasn’t “alone.” It’s a shame I didn’t find him until college. He was once quoted saying “I was neither black enough for the black kids or Dominican enough for the Dominican kids.” Growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in southern NJ, to a Dominican family, had its growing pains. It was hard to identify with just one group because I felt attached to both but there were cultural and social divides prohibiting me from exclusively belonging to either. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao chronicles the life of Oscar De León, an overweight Dominican boy obsessed with science fiction/fantasy, living in Paterson, NJ. I found myself relating to Oscar in the search for his Dominican-American identity and in his relation to his immigrant parents, older brother and community. The narration and writing style in this novel is what I respected most. It was like I was reading a novel by someone I already knew with all of its slang, Spanglish and sci-fi references to The Lord of the Rings. It was also a great learning tool; Junot Díaz helps you follow the story and his many references by including footnotes within the novel. Long story short, it helped me embrace the complexities of my identity.

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

This was the first novel I read by Adichie. Americanah tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who leaves her home in Nigeria to travel to America for university. Mike Peed of The New York Times reviewed the novel saying, "'Americanah examines blackness in America, Nigeria and Britain, but it’s also a steady-handed dissection of the universal human experience—a platitude made fresh by the accuracy of Adichie’s observations." I wholeheartedly agree. It was easy to find myself in the honesty and complexity of Ifemelu’s story. For me, it is the perfect blend of a love story and realistic depiction of life for an immigrant, or non-White person, in the United States. It beautifully captures the struggles of feeling like an “other” and what it means to be an educated, powerful woman in search of purpose and love. Adichie dives into everything from immigration, privilege and politics to intimacy, hair (yes, hair!) and identity. She does all this while guiding us through a beautiful, painful, timeless love story. Could you ask for more?! This book helped me feel rooted in my femininity and taught me to be unapologetic in life, love, work and everything in between. 

What five books would you include in your bookprint?