The Books That Made Me Who I Am
I am the product of endless books.
Nearly every day, a friend or acquaintance tags me on Facebook, asking me to share a list of 10 books that have influenced me. Nearly every day, I read such lists from the same circle of friends and acquaintances. I understand the tidy pleasures provided by such an exercise, but in truth, I am not merely influenced by books. I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books.
The sweetest, most wide-eyed parts of me are made from the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They were some of the first books I read, and as a young girl in Nebraska, I loved knowing there were interesting stories to be told about life on the plains. This is also where my imagination began to swell. I imagined making candy with snow and maple syrup. I could hear the timbre of Pa's voice as he teased Half-Pint. I envied Mary's grace under pressure. I loved Almanzo Wilder. I loved him fiercely, that country boy. When he began courting Laura, I imagined what it would be like to ride in his sleigh with him, my face chilled against the brisk winter air, the rest of me warmed beneath heavy blankets and the rushing blood of Almanzo next to me, the thrill of his hand in mine.
The sweetest, most wide-eyed parts of me are made from Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maude Montgomery and Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.
I was a shy girl, but when I read, I was adventurous. Books made me bolder. I read stories, the titles of which I can no longer remember, about young girls embarking on thrilling adventures on wagon trains and fending for themselves, panning for gold. The Chronicles of Narnia made me believe I could slip into a wardrobe and emerge in a completely different world. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time helped me embrace my intelligence, showed me how I was not merely bound to this world, not at all. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me believe anything was possible if I allowed myself to believe.
With Forever and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume held my hand as my body changed and my heart changed and I began to feel less like a girl and more like a young woman.
My yearning was stoked by Sweet Valley High. My yearning was stoked by the lives of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, their seemingly perfect lives, how everyone loved them and wanted to be them. I was nothing like them, but I wanted to be them or I wanted to be in their golden circle. Through these stories, I understood, intimately, what it meant to be on the outside looking in, utterly unable to look away. I understood what it meant to be enthralled.
As I realized I would never be like those girls, I read The Outsiders and learned there was fierceness in not fitting in.
Boarding school intrigued me, so I read about The Girls of Canby Hall, all 33 books, and then I went to boarding school and it was nothing like The Girls of Canby Hall — but I was a girl from Nebraska, and Shelly Hyde, one of the main characters from the books, was a girl from Iowa. Even though I was a stranger in a strange land, something about boarding school was familiar. As has always been the case, I was not alone because I had so many stories making the inside of me.
Something terrible happened to me so I began to read voraciously about terrible things that happened to other women. This is where I learned gratitude when I did not think it would be possible. This is how I taught myself to believe I was lucky. In Perfect Victim, a young woman is kidnapped by a couple and held prisoner in a box beneath a bed for seven years. What she endures is unfathomable. I took no pleasure in reading this book but I found comfort in knowing our bodies and minds are built to endure. I read this book so often the spine is now white and softened, the pages yellowed with age and the ministrations of my tear-stained fingers.
Something terrible happened so I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I learned that there was strength inside me if I could just hold on, if I could just find my way to reach my strongest place. I learned how to write what I could not speak, and how even if I could not use my voice, it was still there, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Something terrible happened and I needed a different way of being in my body. I read Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and for a while, I was able to live in my own skin on my own terms. In the stories of Macho Sluts by Pat Califia I found swagger. I turned to ink and marked myself with a new skin. I was able to live in my own skin on my own terms.
Lo-li-ta. Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov. From a novel about a pedophile and his unnatural lust for a young girl, I stared down the ugliest parts of what people do to one another and saw the faint, unbearably compelling glimmer of humanity in that hideousness.
The sharpness of my tongue was keened by Edith Wharton and the wit of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth — novels about social graces and the burdens of class and caged hearts, how passion stifled only deepens.
I found irreverence and quiet anger and the ability to laugh at the unfairness of the world in How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière, a writer with whom I share Haitian blood.
The most romantic parts of my heart flourished among the pages of Pride and Prejudice and A Room With a View. Zora Neale Hurston opened mine own eyes through Their Eyes Were Watching God, showing me love in a voice unlike any I had ever known.
My understanding of desire rose out of The Lover, Marguerite Duras, lush and sensual prose, the words thickly wanton. I closed my eyes and wished for the narrator's prescient arrogance. I closed my eyes and lamented these lovers who could never truly be together, their impossible passion, sweaty bodies coming together in the salt and sweltering heat of Indochina. And in those words there was a line that has always, always stayed with me. "My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women." My reading and writing have long been illuminated by the stories of women. I carry these stories with me.
Or my desire rises out of The Story of O by Pauline Réage, a novel about darkness and submission, of allowing yourself to be entirely subsumed by the want and will of another. In this book I learned how submission is terrifying and freeing, how submission allows you to be on the outside looking in on yourself until you lose yourself. The Story of O made me want to get lost in myself or someone else or both.
My empathy grew when I began to understand how vastly the world extended beyond what I thought I knew. I read Once Were Warriors, by Alan Duff — a novel about a Maori family in New Zealand struggling through violence and addiction and loving one another too hard. I read Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and understood the resilience of even the most abandoned among us. I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich and Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange and Passing by Nella Larsen and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin and this is a list that could not possibly end.
My writing ambition was sharpened by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, an unapologetically political novel that reminds us of what it costs to be a woman in this world or the next. My ambition, that toward which I aspire to write, has long been guided by Toni Morrison, Beloved, and through her words, seeing how a novel can be mysterious and true, mythical and raw, how a novel can honor memory even when we want to look away or forget. My ambition has long been sharpened by Alice Walker, willing to tell the stories of black women without apology, willing to write politically without apology — Possessing the Secret of Joy, a haunting, gorgeous novel about female genital mutilation that keeps me transfixed and heartbroken and helpless each time I read it, because sometimes the only way to tell the truth is to tell a story.
Today my writing ambition, my heart, and my mind are expanded by my peers who are writing the books I read with breathless anticipation and envy: Normally Special by xTx, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter, Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older, A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar, Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung, Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman. I take in these stories and become more of myself.
In all these books and in so many more, I find the most essential parts of myself. I become more myself. I learn what to hold most necessary when using my voice. I learn and continue to learn how to use my voice.
I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am made of books. A list could not contain me.
Roxane Gay's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney's, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016.