Mixed media: Book reviews
I Was Told to Come Alone
by Souad Mekhennet (Henry Holt, ISBN 9781627798976)
Souad Mekhennet gives her memoir of a life in journalism the subtitle ‘My journey behind the lines of Jihad’ – and it certainly is quite a journey. Beginning with her childhood in Frankfurt, a daughter of Moroccan guest workers, she gives a vivid account of the obstacles she had to overcome – racism, her position as an outsider in German society, the expectations placed on her as a female and a Muslim – in order to pursue her chosen profession as a political reporter.
Beginning her career as a freelance for various German newspapers, radio and TV stations, she is now a correspondent for the Washington Post, a position that has taken her to some insanely dangerous places where her background has gained her access usually denied to Western journalists. In Afghanistan and Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia, she has interviewed and written about the individuals at the heart of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, always aware that each encounter carried with it the possibility of kidnap and murder.
Souad Mekhennet has said that her touchstone as a journalist is an attempt to seek an answer to the question asked by Maureen Fanning, the American mother of a terrorism victim: ‘why do they hate us so much?’ In her honest dispatches and lucid prose, excoriating equally those who espouse ‘Western values’ while killing by drone, and those who claim to follow Islam by slaughtering the innocent, this brave reporter has done much to foster mutual understanding and promote empathy in a world sorely in need of both qualities.
We : Reviving Social Hope
by Ronald Aronson (The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226334660)
In this readable if rather academic attempt to excavate the roots of hope in society, Ronald Aronson is at pains to tease out exactly what we mean when we speak of hope. He carefully delineates hope from what is labelled ‘progress’, a form of social change, he argues, that often brings little in the way of advancement to the majority of those caught up in its wake. Thus, for instance, mechanical looms are progress, mass unemployment ensues, and the term ‘Luddite’ passes down to us as pejorative.
The author draws on an impressive range of sources, from Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of his book’s namesake, to Jean-Paul Sartre and, most persuasively, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Aronson builds his case for an understanding of hope built on solidarity and mass action, citing the grassroots movements of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos and Occupy as exemplars.
I was particularly impressed by Aronson’s concept of the ‘privatisation of hope’ in which social concern and the common good are subservient to a sense of individual entitlement based on consumerism and an atomized, never-fulfilled selfishness. He has little time for the forces that swept Obama to the presidency, describing the rallying-cry of ‘Yes we can!’ as vacuous and, indeed, it was quickly dropped post-election. He cannot entirely avoid the elephant in the room and, in a postscript, tackles the accession to the presidency of Donald Trump, a snake-oil salesman and the personification of ‘anti-hope’ – leaving this reader at least pretty despondent at the end of a book on hope.
Trans Like Me
by CN Lester (Virago, ISBN 978 0 349 00860 8)
With trans people more visible – in film, music, online – than ever, you might think that transness is having a moment, and that CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is evidence of a tipping point towards acceptance and equality.
Timely, this book most certainly is – though not as proof that trans people have been welcomed into the mainstream. As Lester explains in a thought-provoking account that blends personal experience with wider historical and social insight, the portrayal of trans people in the media is problematic at best and damaging at worst. Progress is not inevitable: in many countries it has stalled, or never started, and trans people everywhere routinely face physical and verbal abuse and the blatant denial of their rights.
Even in more liberal societies, the cis (or non-trans) mainstream does little more than pay lip service to the trans struggle, without challenging society’s unquestioning acceptance of the gender binary. For cis readers sympathetic to and supportive of trans issues, this makes uncomfortable reading, but if Lester’s authentic, honest appraisal of trans’ lives makes us look more closely at our own assumptions and prejudices, then this is all to the good; after all, the book’s subtitle is ‘a journey for all of us’.
Lester isn’t looking for guilt or pity from the reader, however, but for outrage. That this book is necessary in 2017 is itself an outrage. When being trans (or gay or straight, or all or none) is no longer a story, perhaps then we can talk of true acceptance.