Thoughts on a Pandemic Book Club: An Illustrated Essay
In this warm and engaging personal essay, writer Divya Ghelani reflects on the strength and confidence she found by starting a reading group for contemporary novels by BIPOC authors. Accompanied by sketches and interpretations from author and artist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, ‘Thoughts on a Pandemic Book Club’ illuminates the need for community bonds and authentic representation in literature to foster confidence in one’s authorial voice and identity.
‘Maybe take it slow and read for a while?’ a friend advised. We were discussing my heartbreak at abandoning my first novel, a coming-of-age story about an abusive teacher-pupil relationship. I’d been talking about my constant low-level anxiety, and she delivered her suggestion in a quiet, concerned manner. She was right, of course. I’d been spending too many hours scrolling through Trump-Brexit and Covid-19 headlines. My mind felt frazzled. The desire to read fiction, my usual go-to activity during hard times, had been hijacked by algorithms.
I vowed to reclaim my appetite. It would be my nightly holiday from the grimness of the news: a warm duvet, a cup of tea, the dissolution of my identity within stories and characters. I told myself it would be best to read a book from another era – the ultimate fictional escape from the horrors of our world – and stumbled upon a copy of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, thinking, ‘Great, I’ll start with you.’
Orlando was one of the classics that I, a former student of English Literature, had missed. I knew it had something to do with queerness and Vita Sackville-West, but that was it. Still, it fit my criteria: a beautifully written story from another time. As I opened the book, however, I found Orlando ‘in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor’ and began reading how Orlando’s father had ‘struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters’. In the context of all the hate being thrown at people of colour, those passages made me utterly exhausted.
I’d had it hammered into me that great art reflects the universal human condition, but reading Orlando felt alienating and hurtful. It brought on such a bout of anxiety that I cast the book aside. I suppose I could have persisted on the grounds that Woolf is a feminist icon, a product of her time; that her intellect, profound sensitivity to language, and contextually progressive politics were important to engage with in spite of her racism. At that very moment, however, I just didn’t want to. Not one iota of me wanted to continue reading that book. With my whole body I thought, ‘Screw this’.
Don’t get me wrong. I had read, admired, and studied Woolf’s essays as well as her novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, so it wasn’t as if I wished to disinherit myself of the writer. I just couldn’t help but wonder about all the other moments of racism within Western canonical works I’d tacitly been encouraged to ignore or explain away. How had such experiences of curricular learning muddied my clarity of thought? How had they damaged my sense of identity? If Western canonical works were so great, and their white authors such geniuses, why hadn’t my teachers encouraged me to consider them from all angles? What did it mean for my literary integrity (and theirs) that I had been taught to gloss over issues of race and colonialism? What did it mean for my confidence as a writer and as a citizen now?
Part of me wanted to revisit all my canonical learning with a red pen, on guard against sentences that might diminish my humanity. At the same time, the idea that I should return to the canon to better appraise its racism felt maddening and depressing. Surely there was a healthier way to engage with the issue, one I might actually enjoy. I decided I would forgo the classics entirely and turn my attention to contemporary fiction by authors of colour. I’m a grown woman but ditching my schooled elitism wasn’t as easy as it sounds. It felt illicit, and my anxiety came back in full force; I became aware of insidious voices hidden within that whispered that such newer stories were not as valuable as those by ‘The Greats.’ I ignored these voices and made a conscious choice to stick by my decision, placing an online order for a brand-new reading list. My fresh haul of fiction made me feel welcomed and re-humanised. The authors became avatars or guides, helping me to reclaim and expand my sense of self and identity.
I found myself wondering what it might be like to discuss these stories in a group setting, considering them in ways I’d missed out on as a student of English Literature. All my teachers, up to A-Levels at least, had been white, and when it came to literature my schooling had consisted mainly of canonical and contemporary white novelists with only a handful of texts by BIPOC authors, added in like an afterthought. My new collection of novels offered fictional escape from, and engagement with, contemporary politics from non-white perspectives, so I knew the conversations would be important, lively, and interesting. I decided on a reading circle as opposed to a top-down format wherein an expert imparted knowledge to students. I knew from experience how important it was not to make readers and writers from marginalised communities feel like perpetual students or mentees. I longed for a space in which we could all feel inspired by living BIPOC writers and their works, empowering us to nurture and claim our creative identities. I took courage from Roxanne Gay, whose book of essays, Bad Feminist, I was reading at the time: ‘When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example’.
I pitched the idea to writer development platform The Reader Berlin. My reading series would be open to all, but it would also be an experience that centred and affirmed the experiences of non-binary readers of colour, dethroning the standard cis white reader and writer. Whenever planning bought on that familiar anxiety, I reminded myself I was serving up what I had missed out on: a soft, communal space for creative thought and exploration as a racialised and gendered person. I recalled how fragile, under-confident, and anomalous my voice had felt when, aged twenty –two, I embarked on a Creative Writing MA. What might it have been like to feel safe and empowered enough to generate the sorts of discussions I was planning now? How might it have encouraged me be more myself, deepening my sense of identity as a young writer? How might it have helped me feel surer of my voice now?
I recalled my English Literature BA, too; how I had always felt a bit out of place. Several of my lecturers had simply presumed I’d opt for a PhD in Postcolonialism even though I’d ensured my grades were great across the board. As much as I had loved it, studying English Literature had made me feel like I’d always be an outsider. By building and hosting my own Reading Series, I wanted to mainstream myself, and other readers and writers who had felt similarly othered. I wanted to create a safe and joyful environment wherein texts by non-white authors were at the centre, not on the periphery (non-white people are, after all, a global majority). We’d talk about craft, voice, style, arrangement, and issues of race and gender, as well as how we felt about the books and why.
The series was hosted on Zoom due to the pandemic, and readers and writers joined from all over the world; some BIPOC, some white. I needn’t have worried so much about readers’ sensitivity towards one another because everyone proved generous, thoughtful, and empathetic. We met twice a month, and our conversations were expansive, personal, political, and, to my relief, — fun. In what were deeply distressing times for non-white and marginalised communities, I’d been feeling the need to re-centre playfulness and creativity in my life. It’s one of the reasons I reached out to novelist and illustrator Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, who I commissioned to paint a series of mind maps about our Reading Series from her home in London. This felt like a wild idea, and one I held off exploring for a while, because my critical voices deemed it a frivolous indulgence. It was only when I began questioning those voices that a magical yes floated into being. The yes had been there along, and though shy and unsure of itself, it told me: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you actually went through with it?’ I told myself that the Reading Series was an experiment; why not push the boundaries a little more to incorporate a cross-disciplinary experience via visual art — honouring the author, the book, and the conversation?
We opened with Akwaeke Emezi’s spiritual debut, Freshwater, which amazed and enlivened me by exploding the tyranny of all categories to reveal a plural and multifaceted reality. Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees blew me away because it taught me it was possible to write powerfully and brilliantly from the perspective of characters one loathed as a means of unravelling issues like neo-colonialism and abuse. Diana Evans’ use of gothic and realist literary styles in Ordinary People reminded me of the power of duality, that studying and struggling with the limitations of canonical works could lead to great creativity. The reading series was making me feel thoroughly alive. It lightened my mood, made my shoulders drop and my mind hum for days afterwards with snippets of conversations and ideas. My sense of myself, confidence, and self-belief grew by reading contemporary fiction by BIPOC authors and discussing these works in a community setting. I even found it in me to reclaim my ‘failed’ novel, realising it wasn’t some sort of shameful catastrophe. It was simply unfinished, waiting for me to find my way back to it; to mend my broken heart.
As our commissioned artist, Rowan painted portraits of authors, objects from the texts, and selected quotes from our discussions in ways that centred and valued individual reader experiences. ‘We engage with stories in more personal ways than we feel allowed to express in places like university seminars’, she told me. Observing Rowan as she threw herself into the challenge of creating new artworks led me to reflect on my own writing. How could I write wholeheartedly, be less of a perfectionist, find that intensity of encounter? I got a real thrill from watching her post her illustrations onto Instagram. If she felt nervous about showcasing on social media freshly painted portraits of authors she admired, she didn’t let it stop her. I took it as a reminder to be courageous in creativity; that I could switch my dial from anxiety to excitement.
By the time we discussed our penultimate book, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, I felt something magical happening to our gathering — an encounter borne of trust and intimacy. Ng tells the story of the mixed-culture Lee family, all of whom experience the trauma of assimilation, as well as the painful desire to belong within a climate where to be seen as anything other than a model minority is to be cast aside. I was extremely moved by the ways in which readers identified with the Lee family’s experiences, and how generously and intimately they talked about fitting in at the cost of losing themselves. After Rowan painted her last mind map in the series, a stunning depiction of the starry lake near the Lee family home, I realised I had created this inclusive, supportive reading community to heal from my own painful attempts at assimilating into individualistic Western literary culture. Feedback from readers suggested they too felt changed by the experience.
I’ve since hosted a second year of my BIPOC Reading Series and am now planning my third. I’m learning I don’t have to read with a red pen in my hand, constantly on guard against potential threats to my humanity. I can turn away and go on my own reading journey, listening to and trusting my feelings, discovering which works speak to me and why (as opposed to those prescribed by manufactured notions of ‘literary greatness’). I’m learning to check in with my feelings as a reader and as a writer, valuing the truth of my intuition; listening to my quiet ‘no’s and ‘yes’s. To choose to listen to myself, within an environment that often refuses to question its own prejudices, is a deeply loving and political act. I’m learning that by stepping outside the confines of the canon and the more asphyxiating aspects of our Western literature-dominated culture, I can own my feelings and sing myself up by valuing the fullness of my experience. I can build my own canons, create my own communities. Reading, after all, is as bold a creative act as writing. It is to enter a world made up of someone else’s thoughts. When the author says, ‘This is how it feels to me’, I can respond with ‘Do I really feel it too?’
Divya Ghelani is a writer who holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and an MPhil in Literary Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has published short stories in BareLit, BBC Radio 4, Litro, and more. Her novel in progress has been longlisted and shortlisted for four literary awards. Divya lives between the UK and Berlin where she leads a BIPOC Reading Series for The Reader Berlin and co-hosts a short story club for the UK’s leading literary salon, The Word Factory. She is a contributor to Comma Press’s latest anthology, The Cuckoo Cage. Divya is represented by The Good Literary Agency.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You and Starling Days. She has won The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award and been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. Her work has been a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and an NPR Great Read. Her short work has appeared in several places including Granta, Guernica, The Guardian, The Harvard Review, and NPR’s Selected Shorts. She is the editor of the Go Home! anthology.