It was only when I reread the lines, “Sit. Feast on your life,” that I realised I had forgotten where I acquired those words from. Derek Walcott’s Love After Love is the extract before the story begins in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife. I had somehow misplaced these lines in my mind even though this poem is carried with me when navigating any hardship, any celebrations and all the days in between.
Before we were all forced to slow down, reading had become another emblem of hustle culture. The only thing that seemed to count was exactly how much you were able to squeeze into your day. With the rise of Booktubers and online book clubs, reading arguably became something that had a means to an end. But do we ever really digest anything, that way? How did COVID-19 and the recent protests influence the way we enjoy books? And what more can we learn from them?
Finding myself running my fingers across my sprouting library isn’t something unfamiliar, but having the time to explore old favourites was a rare pleasure before the coronavirus lockdown. How many times have we all heard the person next to us say they ‘don’t have time to read’? Or when they do, it has to be purposeful, a book that’s apart of the zeitgeist or worse, something productive to further one’s careers. Even these specific books are based on how to be quicker at everything—including reading books that are made to devour, not gobble.
“I used to do the Goodreads reading challenge every year, where you set out how many books you want to read, but now I don’t want to see my leisure time as something that’s another thing to do that day,” says Megan Staunton, a literary agent at Gleam Titles. “Another component in life to document. Another way to divide my time into percentages and commodify my hobbies. There’s also a lot of social pressure to read the ‘right’ things when it’s supposed to be an extension of your sense of self.”
So what has changed during the lockdown; a time of protest, police brutality and deadly virus? It seems we’ve moved past the stage of banana bread and catching up with all the books we were supposed to read these past few years. “In a recent meeting with publishers, we spoke about consumer buying habits and how that’s shifted due to COVID-19,” notes Staunton. “Reading has changed in terms of trends as a lot more readers are seeking escapist novels with nice endings. People are also utilising their bookshelves and revisiting old classics.”
Rereading an old favourite no longer feels like a luxury. Reading something that isn’t trending, and more so, reading a book you’ve already read before if anything is a middle finger to the notion that we have to be even more productive because most of us are at home.
“The amount of comfort rereading a favourite book is really beautiful. It’s the same feeling as catching up with an old friend. When you come across a plot point you’ve experienced before, there’s solace in that sense of nostalgia, especially when there’s so much else going on in the world,” says Staunton.
But there is so much going on in the world. Including the fight for black justice and equality, meaning our conversations on dismantling racism has impacted what we’re consuming. For the first time in history, The New York Times’ best-sellers list this week was composed of ten anti-racist reads, including Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. According to Neilsen Bookscan, the author is also the first Black British author to top the UK’s book charts. The only Black author to do this before was former First Lady, Michelle Obama.
On Twitter, Eddo-Lodge writes, “Can’t help but be dismayed by this—the tragic circumstances in which this achievement came about. The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first. Let’s be honest. Reader demand aside, that it took this long is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry.”
It may be a privilege to take a step back and find a home in rereading a book that once touched you, but arguably, being able to read about racism, instead of experiencing it is also a privilege. Which does make me wonder, as much as I’m a reader, how many more books about racism need to be read in order for people not to be racist?
Having the time to read an old favourite again is a chance, one that calls for radical joy, the most underrated type of rebellion. And while I am all for it, it is important we make sure to also use our free time to educate ourselves and learn more about racism. If you’re lucky enough to never have experienced it, reading about it is the closest you’ll get to understanding it.
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”