The Book That Changed My Life; Or, Why Representation Matters

There were fictional characters I identified with growing up. The bookish girls, the feisty girls. The girls who were not quite as prim and proper as their sisters or school mates. Laura Ingalls, Rose Wilder, Anne Shirley, Kristy Thomas of the Babysitters Club. The otherness of their lives and circumstances only served to help me focus on their personalities and there, I found common ground. I might not know what it was like to be a nineteenth-century pioneer exploring America’s frontiers or hunting fairy rings on Prince Edward Island, but I understood being different. Still, I never really saw myself reflected in a book until I went to grad school. And when I finally did, it was not in a novel about a mixed-race daughter of immigrants in the twenty-first century, but in the cultural theory and critique of a mid-century Caribbean intellectual, doctor, and radical.

In a 600-level English class at one of the most prestigious universities on the East Coast, I was introduced to postcolonial theory via Frantz Fanon’s book, Black Skins, White Masks. The irony of paying exorbitant amounts of money to have an old, white man assign a book that would explain to me my own heritage and experience only contributes to the many layers of revelation that this book was for me. In its small details and existential struggle Black Skins did for me what no other book had been able to do. It held up a mirror to my life and left me with the shock of recognition that holy crap…it’s not just me.

I remember the moment this routine reading assignment stopped being something I had to get through and became something I devoured at every available moment. Fanon described the “swallowed Rs” of French Colonial accents and the way a person trying to whitewash his heritage might overemphasize the endings of his words as he called to the waiterrrr at the barrrr to please bring him some waterrrr; a moment that I, to this day, quote from memory. The words jumped off the page and I immediately heard the accents of my father and uncles, the way certain sounds dropped out of their mouths and down the back of their throats to disappear in a deep hum. When he wrote of a grand heritage to hark back to and the trauma of finding only emptiness when searching for a personal, historical inheritance, I felt the ache of my own denuded family tree, filled more with question marks than names.

Later, as I read and re-read Fanon’s body of work with a more critical eye, I would find points of argument. But none of these could take away my appreciation for that first spark of recognition, of the surprise and warmth of being seen. For once, I felt like I was on an even playing field with a piece of literature; participating in a conversation rather than listening passively to a story.

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