Learning to Listen

Dec 17, 2020

When the world grows quiet, we learn to listen.

This is the theme of the beautiful children’s book Ten Ways to Hear the Snow written by Cathy Camper and illustrated by Kenard Pak. It’s a book that on my gift-giving list for many of the children in my life, but I’ve read and enjoyed it a few times myself. The morning I wrote this, we woke to the kind of snow illustrated in this book and not too often seen here in Tulsa. Like many others, I stepped outside to listen to the quiet. 

Our world grew quiet this year (at least for a short time), and I hope that I learned to listen. I hope that over the din of internet trolls, political ads, and conspiracy theories I was able to make out the voices that so needed to be heard.

Reading is one way that we learn to listen. In a strange, heartbreaking year, I’m so grateful to the books and fellow readers that allowed me to grapple with difficult truths, see from a new perspective, laugh out loud, and listen intently. Here are some of my most memorable reads of the last year. 

Citizen: An American Lyric

by Claudia Rankine 

Published in 2014, Citizen is a poet’s reflection on race in America and what it means--to quote Zora Neale Hurston— “to feel most colored when [one] is thrown against a sharp white background.” A gripping, raw, and vulnerable work that feels immediate and essential.  

Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi 

This is the story of a family in Alabama by way of Ghana and narrated by the family’s daughter, Gifty. In an effort to understand her brother’s overdose and her mother’s depression, she leaves behind the religious fervor of her upbringing and devotes her life to science. When her mother comes to stay with her, she begins to consider the ways science and faith may intersect. 

The Undocumented Americans

by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a DACA recipient who is not interested in writing about “Dreamers.” More specifically, she is not interested in perpetuating the American Dream myth. In an interview on Code Switch, she describes the American Dream as a Pyramid Scheme: “I am like one of the top sellers at Mary Kay, and I am recruiting so many people, and I need to warn them that they need to take care of their mental health. Because that is going to be the casualty, the price they pay for the American Dream.” She prefers to look unflinchingly at undocumented Americans as individuals -- unique in their complexities.

With uncommon access to immigrant communities in New York, Flint, Miami, Cleveland and New Haven, she gives voice to those from whom we rarely hear. 

Here for It: Or How to Save your Soul in America

by R. Eric Thomas 

I listened to the audio of this on election week, and it was absolutely what I needed. Thomas, an award-winning playwright and creator of Elle’s hilarious “Eric Reads the News” gives us a memoir in essays about growing up and seeing the world from a different vantage point. Alternately heartfelt and hilarious, this book asks the question that as bad as things are—Is the future worth it? The answer is a joyful and resounding yes. I laughed, I cried, I sang a lot of Whitney Houston. 

Monogamy

by Sue Miller 

We’ve spent a lot of time at home this year, so if you’re contemplating the complexities of contemporary family life, Sue Miller is here for you. In her latest, she explores the 30-year marriage of Annie and Graham after Graham’s untimely and shocking death. Annie’s grief is complicated by learning of Graham’s infidelity. What could be common or cliché is treated with nuance and compassion in Miller’s skilled storytelling. 

For more of my favorites, check out the list here. Wishing all of us more reading and more listening in the better days ahead!