Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reading the World: 1. Nigeria

In an effort to help students grow as readers, we conference one-on-one about their choices. How they find books. What they like, don't like, want to try next. So much of the reading in my classroom is driven by choice.

Some conversations drift towards goal-setting. Specifically, we discuss reading books by authors from different parts of the world or books based on characters from diverse cultures. We discussed noticing authors: where they were from, what was unique about their life experience, and what details made it into the authors' bios.

It was a new way for some of my students to find books. And some found it an interesting challenge.

Swallowing my own advice, I decided I wanted to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It would be--as far as I knew--my first novel by a writer from Nigeria. It arrived and took a space in my book pile beneath my standard, comfortable fare of nonfiction and contemporary fiction: Napolean: A Life by Andrew Roberts, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, et al. I have enjoyed the 12 books I have read since early June.

And then I started Americanah. For the first 75 pages I felt uncomfortable. At arm's length. Painfully aware of my inability to connect with the characters or the experiences of an African getting one's hair braided in America, I felt impulses to abandon the book.

I stuck with it because the discomfort of not knowing is ultimately what I want to coach my students to overcome. Exposure to fragments of the world--even if it is through a novel--is desirable.

As Americanah developed, I found my reading gaining momentum. In the back of my mind I forgave my lack of comfort and just let the story take me with it.

By the time I reached the last 100 or so pages I took breaks to browse for my next uncomfortable book--the next book to stick a finger in my chest--the next book to challenge me to look out and abroad. To pay better attention.

I found Ann Morgan's blog, A Year of Reading the World where I was introduced to a word which described my reading habits: anglocentric. Ann Morgan wrote this about herself and I connect with her. I can admit this about myself and seek to change it.

Ann challenged herself to read at least one book by an author from all 196 countries. On her blog she lists all of the books she read by country. And so, now, I will start to work my way through the As and order my first few selections to start blending into my book pile.

Multicultural literature goes largely untouched in my classroom even though I have several dozen selections of diverse books on a clearly identified shelf.

And even though my students have written about their own cultural backgrounds and family histories, and I have book-talked multicultural titles, man of my students's reading lives also look anglocentric.

The challenge is bigger than me, but clearly, the challenge starts with me. I need to be a better model.

I am wondering how multicultural or diverse books do in other classroom libraries? And I am wondering what people discover about the reading choices of their own students or children? Do we contribute to the anglocentric reading model? Is it avoidable? And, if I can ask just for the sake of conversation, is the problem I am alluding that it may be?

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