Books I Liked 01 (short book reviews)

One of the things I realized this year is that I am actually reading more interesting books than I am able to review individually for the blog.
To try out a new format and share some interesting reads with you before the holidays and before 2016 will be wrapped up, I am sharing two new and also very different book reviews with you.

As always, my approach is reviewing through the lens of ‘communication for development’ with an eye on media, communication and different angles of ‘development’ or phenomena that I think are relevant for ‘our’ aid industry as well.

Wesley Lowery’s book is based on his experiences as a Washington Post correspondent who has been covering police brutality in the USA and community responses beyond #blacklivesmatter.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel takes us to Jamaica, following the lives of three women and their struggles with social change and society’s expectations.

“They Can’t Kill Us All” 

Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All”-Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement is an important and powerful reflection on high-profile police killings of African-American citizens in the US.
As a correspondent for the Washington Post Lowery traveled to Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston and Baltimore after the notorious incidents of police shooting African-American citizens in contested circumstances. But his book is much more than a long-form journalistic summary of how families and communities have (not) been coping with the aftermath of nationally, sometimes globally, discussed cases of police brutality and the impunity surrounding the cases. Lowery manages to find an astonishing balance between reflections on media and journalism, engaging with families and communities beyond hashtags or facebook video shares and reminding us on the underlying social inequalities in many urban spaces in the US.

At a time when ‘fake news’ and post-factual journalism have reached development debates, Lowery’s writing provides a refreshing antidote. There is no (foreign) correspondent hero narrative of how the journalist is dodging bullets, breaking rules and exposing the injustices of the world. Rather, it is an emotionally draining journey of early morning flights, hotel rooms and meeting angry, bereaved and disappointed people.

Lowery always manages to share details of his journalistic practice, his tiresome travel schedule or the nearly impossible ways of talking to bereaved family members of the victims in a context of humility and imperfection. Lowery is a reflective journalist, a careful observer, but also the son of mixed-race parents who contacts high school friends as stringers for some of his stories. His approach is often old-fashioned, personal and non-digital, but at the same time the Washington Post is also running a big data project to document police shootings and he connects with front line activists through Twitter. If nothing else, it is a reminder that journalism is complicated and nuanced and most stories come with different shades of grey-especially when there is one viral video or photo that seemingly sums up everything.

Lowery’s book is also a powerful reminder of how civil society works outside the digital arena and the ‘slacktivism’ of sharing, clicking and liking. He connects with church groups, civil rights activists and community leaders who have been on site for years, sometimes decades, and know that justice, social change and equality are never just a hashtag or a high-profiled indictment away. In the digital age, the mundane church meetings, the backroom discussions in a communal building or the deeply-ingrained racialized and classists practices in some communities are less palpable than speculating on how facebook can influence social movements and policy-making or looking for the next new ‘movement’. Even if Lowery is part of the mainstream media group of traveling correspondents he manages to give the reader a sense of the ‘before’ and ‘after’. Black leadership is sometimes divided over strategies and historical achievements and having a black President did not ‘solve’ all the issues.
Lastly, Lowery manages to weave a bigger, probably ‘meso-level’ story of challenges and solutions: City councilors attending a meeting with the community in the basement of a local bookshop can be an important trust-building exercise and re-instating community policing can reduce crime and violence; none of it addresses the complexities of deep-rooted inequalities in urban spaces.

One of the hardest things for many of the activists I interviewed on and off campus (during the protests at the University of Missouri) was figuring out what should come next. Should they continue to fight? Should they find “real” jobs? Should they become politicians? Gadflies? Full-time activists? (p.219)
I think these are questions that we often hear from students or ask ourselves in our quests for development and social transformation. I can recommend “They Can’t Kill Us All” for exactly those reasons, as a well-written reminder that social engagement comes with a past and long-term future – not just the current activities and activism of ‘new’ organizations, collectives or smart forms of digital attention. Maintaining infrastructures and formal entry points for change with a reinvigorated energy for sustainable change against the odds remains an everyday challenge no philanthropist or app will solve for us.
The book will stand the test of time as a contribution to the broader historical debates that did not start with a police killing and will not be ‘over’ with #blacklivesmatter as a new civil society forum.

Here Comes The Sun 

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Here Comes The Sun has already achieved a long list of recommendations, nominations and praise. And yet, it is not a (n Oprah) book club-friendly reading experience.
As we follow the lives of sisters Margot and Thandi and her mother Delores the reader is confronted with the challenges of growing up, getting older and growing old between huts of an impoverished Jamaican neighborhood and the aspirations of escape-through education, shrewdness or determination. Dennis-Benn’s book is an excellent example of how novels and fiction can enrich teaching, research and debates around ‘development’ through unique voices, many dialogues are written in local Patois dialect, and unfamiliar perspectives. Through Margot’s secret lesbian relationship, Thandi’s pressure to perform well in her expensive private school and single mother Delores’ cynical worldview to trade sexuality for survival we are right in the middle of the messy Jamaican realities of a conservative society for women, modern and expanding tourist destination and ‘underdeveloped’ shanty town for struggling fishermen.

These worlds clash and without sharing too many spoilers we are denied simple narratives of empowerment and progress. Jamaica is changing, new resorts and more cruise ships help her to grow, but a fulfilled life is more than a promotion for Margot in the hotel where she works, excellent grades
in her Catholic school or fair skin for Thandi or a good day of souvenir sales at the market for Delores.

Reading the novel as a European man, the book is yet an important reminder how new authors and fresh narratives can help us to gain insights into lifeworlds that are often hidden even from ethnographic research, let alone traditional development policy discourses. At the center of the novel are nuanced and sometimes uncomfortable debates around sexuality and sexual freedoms, between commodified transactions, outdated stereotypes and unspoiled love that defy easy advice or simple ‘just don’t do it’ behavior change campaigns.

In the end, the book is also a powerful reminder how ‘life happens’-we wish Thandi a successful career as a creative artist, hope for Margot that her career aspirations will leave her find love and that Delores, despite her motherly flaws, will be able to grow old in dignity.
But individual choices, social conventions and modernist pressure may not agree with the women of the River Bank community living happily ever after…

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