The woke reading list

Any self-respecting woke person needs to read these

21st August 2018

The year is 2018, so if you don’t know what the word “woke” means by now there’s a good chance you’ve just emerged from some kind of coma (in which case, welcome to hell). Though it’s become something of a buzzword in recent years, the concept of wokeness is really nothing new, nor is it something to be intimidated or put-off by. In the most basic of terms, to be woke is to have a good understanding of social and racial issues, and to be generally aware of the impact these issues can have within society. Some wear it as a badge of honour, whereas other deride the concept, seeing it as a way to virtue-signal – which, in a minority of cases, might well be accurate. Ultimately though, to have an understanding of these issues – and especially in the case of those of us who don’t experience many first-hand – to be able to better empathise with those who do as a result, can only be a good thing.

But how does one become woke? Is it possible? Some might have us believe that wokeness is an attribute they were born with or have always had an intuitive understanding of, but in reality, it only comes from exposing yourself to the viewpoints and experiences of people from other communities, and from genuinely attempting to see things from that or a different perspective. There’s a litany of literature which could rightly be considered woke — and it is ever-expanding — but we’ve collated a few of our favourites here, which cover a broad range of subjects, from post-empire race relations in Britain, to why men can be so bloody annoying sometimes.

The Good Immigrant by Various (Edited by Nikesh Shukla)

Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant is a compilation of personal essays written to document experiences with race and identity. The book even consists of words penned by everyone’s favourite Riz Ahmed, EastEnders’ actor Himesh Patel and so many more. The authors are not the sole reason for making this book an essential read. By inviting you into the writer’s personal space, you are forced to acknowledge the varying experiences of what it means to be a BME individual in Britain. Shukla’s collection provides a necessary interrogation of so-called British values and creates a vital space for often unheard voices.

Among essays about racist attacks, appropriation and other things everyone sees but are blind to, readers are shown the inside of an audition room in Hollywood, where south Asian actors are cast as terrorists and taxi drivers, and airport security areas, where even Ahmed, an internationally famous actor and musician, is routinely stopped and searched.

Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

Akala is perhaps best known as a rapper, but could justifiably be classified as a musician, activist, scholar and now an author, with the release of his first book Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, earlier this year. Though he’s attracted precious little mainstream airplay throughout a 10-year+ career, largely due to the politically charged nature of much of his music, his appeal and success is broad, and when occasionally he does drift into mainstream consciousness – as with his infamous put-down to Tommy Robinson, or recent appearance on BBC Question Time – he always demonstrates a razor-sharp intellect and keen insight.

Race and Class is a narrative polemic, in which the author takes formative incidents from his life and commonly heard racial slurs like “why don’t you go back to where you come from?” and interrogates them, placing them in the historical context of a post-empire Britain, and in doing so highlighting the hypocrisy and stupidity so often at play. Moments from Akala’s youth and schooling are placed under the microscope and used with great effect to illustrate many of the wider problems faced in parts of society, particularly by young BAME boys in inner-cities. Family life, schooling, relationships with the police and violent-crime are laid bare, and tackled with ferocious intellectual rigour. It is throughout eye-opening, touching, fascinating and perhaps most impressive of all somewhat optimistic, as for almost every acknowledgement or observation of systemic issues there is presented a potential solution.

An affirming and essential read for anyone trying to make sense of Britain today.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge

Some might baulk at the title, but in her debut book Renni Eddo-Lodge explains in painful and stark terms the justification behind it.

Straight-talking and rightfully unapologetic about ruffling the feathers of white sensibility, Eddo-Lodge painstakingly lays out the case for her giving up on conversations about race with most white people. She covers the under-told history of black Britain, pointing to events and happenings – from post-WW1 lynchings to the murder of Steven Lawrence – many of which will likely be unknown to readers of a certain demographic. She explains expertly the relationship between this history, the wider representation of black people within British society, and systemic and endemic racism within our power structures and institutions.

For those who’ve had the privilege of never considering it, Eddo-Lodge describes the vast differences in human experience between white and black people within the same society, and why this difference – when so often unacknowledged by the former party – makes conversations about race a damaging and frustrating experience for those who never had the choice to ignore it in the first place.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

A collection of essays by the author who coined the term “mansplaining”, Men Explain Things to Me covers many frustrating aspects of modern womanhood.

The titular essay, which went viral a decade ago, discusses the all-too-familiar experience of gendered condescension; men who wade into subjects they probably know little about and attempt to educate women who are often better-informed on the matter. This common phenomena is explained with an anecdote, in which the author has the importance of a new book explained to her by a man who has never read said book, but knows it is more important than the one she’s talking about; the only problem is that the ‘new book’ is in fact the author’s.

Mansplaining is not the only topic up for discussion here, far from it. The issue of violence against women and its many different forms is tackled with ferocity and hard-facts, and other topics, like marriage and online-hate, are discussed thoughtfully. Illustrations throughout are provided by Ana Teresa Fernandez, whose images complement the themes at play perfectly. Solnit crafts  essays expertly, filling them with crystalline prose and sparkling insight, making each as readable and worthwhile as the last.

Know Your Place by Various (Edited by Nathan Connolly)

“Know Your Place” is most easily described as “The Good Immigrant” but for the working class. In fact, it was Nikesh Shukla, the editor of “The Good Immigrant” that suggested the idea over Twitter in the first place. Nathan Connelly, and the fine folks at the Northern and independent publishers, Dead Ink Books answered the call and “Know Your Place” was born.

It is a collection of 24 essays from working-class writers it covers a gamut of topics. They range from the importance of pubs as a social space to the guilt of spending money on take-out food; from childhood memories of Saturday night living rooms and seaside resorts to the existential worry that graduating could somehow strip away your working-class membership.

What’s most intriguing about the book is that the range of authors and their chosen subjects helps us to see what we are sometimes blind to- that being working class isn’t just one thing. It’s not just poor and pasty Northerners working ‘down pit’. It the most widely shared economic status and something millions of us share regardless of our race, our parents, our jobs or our sexuality.  Despite the impact all these things have on our lives and how they divide us, “Know Your Place” demonstrates a shared experience that is familiar to us all.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

“Woke science fiction?! You can’t be serious?” I hear you say. But yes, it has happened, and it is Very Good.

The science fiction genre is still dominated by white men, as Fireside Fiction found in their 2016 report, which showed that under 2% of speculative fiction short stories published in magazines were written by black authors in 2015. Fans have a long way to go as well, unless the backlash against the first Star Wars films to have a cast that well-represents modern society was to do with something other than race? Who Fears Death shows that science fiction can tackle important issues of racism, and that characters don’t have to be white to be relatable.

Partly inspired by a Washington Post article on the subject, Who Fears Death follows Onyesonwu, a child of weaponised rape, in a future Sudan where dark-skinned Okeke people are oppressed by light skinned Nuru people, but a child of mixed heritage like Onyesonwu is shunned more than any other.

The book is an epic tale of revenge, in which Onyesonwu seeks to kill her sorcerer rapist father, but also of companionship, as she travels with a group of friends, all joining her for their own personal reasons.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling introduces a potentially perspective altering book based on one simple rule: only carry opinions for which you have strong supporting facts. Sounds easy enough. But, as the results of the book’s opening quiz show (which tests readers on their knowledge of the current state of the world e.g. poverty figures), most people, highly educated or not, tend to guess wrong. Not only wrong, but they assume that everything is far worse than it really is. Factfulness identifies ten instincts we all have which over dramatise the world as we see it and provides maxims to rid these misleading instincts from our thought process.

The gap instinct, for example, is where we read data or a news story, and assume that these are the most common life experiences when in fact, it is the middle ground where most of us lie. Most of us don’t own private jets and most of us don’t have to walk miles every morning to collect water for the day. The vast majority of the world’s population are somewhere in the middle. Not only does Factfulness provide a more accurate vision of the world, it helps to shift the Eurocentric perspective that many of us may have to understand the rapidly growing economies of Africa and certain areas of Asia. Factfulness is a truly enlightening book.


21st August 2018