My students and I are about to start a unit studying people and movement. Every new course and group is a fresh challenge in curriculum development: identifying and sourcing appropriate texts, deciding on writing exercises, linking new material to previous learning.
People and movement is a tough remit for its sheer breadth. From the wanderings that brought homo sapiens from its ancestral home in Africa to the current heartbreak and chaos that reign at ultra-militarized human-made borders, there is much to absorb, understand, reflect on and debate.
And of course, movement is more than just physical displacement. People and movement must consider emotional and spiritual journeys, economic trajectories, the currents that flow between lovers or haters, the passage from ignorance to enlightenment. Movement is life: heart blood nerve impulse digestive contraction sperm meets egg infant traverses birth canal. We only stop moving when we’re dead.
Looking back at my reading list of the past few months, almost every book could be profitably analyzed through the lens of movement. The following 10 books — a mix of fiction, memoir, verse and biography — give particular insight into human dynamics, visible and invisible. Without further ado, the people and movement reading list.
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class edited by Michelle Tea
As culture gets less equal, movement between social classes becomes as fetishized as it is remote. An antidote to the reams written about the poor — Without A Net, edited by Michelle Tea — is by the poor, or the formerly poor. Though one of the key features of the essays in this book is the disabuse of the notion that someone can transcend deprivation simply by making a bit of money. Lack (of cash, of security, of stability, of self-confidence) is a persistent challenge and the writers in this anthology challenge the notion that there is a quick fix for what Richard Sennett memorably termed ‘the hidden injuries of class’.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Brief yet lacerating, Kincaid’s dissection of colonialism ancient and modern demands an analysis of the privilege of movement. People of certain countries, cultures and backgrounds can move freely, either as conquerors or (almost as problematically) consumers of less-privileged places. The use of the second-person pushes the reader to question their identification and position in the hierarchy of movement.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones
This anthology includes the longform pieces written as part of the New York Times 1619 Project, plus new essays. It examines the way catastrophic, criminal displacements of people underlie and shape United States’ culture. Kidnapping, transporting and enslaving Africans plus genocidal clearances of Native peoples created a nation that has yet to come to terms with the implications and outcomes of its past.
Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass by Frank Close
Some people look outwards to understand the world, but the movement towards greater understanding often requires turning in. In the case of Peter Higgs and scores of scientists across decades, the journey was ever-deeper into the realm of subatomic particles, resulting in the eventual discovery of the Higgs boson — a particle whose movement is fundamental to the shape of our universe.
Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson
Another intense exploration of the potential and limitations of moving between social classes. Hudson was the English equivalent of poor white trash, a circumstance which meant she spent her childhood moving from one precarious, uncomfortable, humiliating physical and social environment to another. Revisiting old haunts as a successful adult, she is confronted by how little some things have moved on.
All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
This novel in verse is aimed at middle-grade readers but it made me weep. Told in the first-person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted, after the war, by a couple from the United States, it gets to broken heart of violent displacement and alienation from home and culture. It also (ambitiously, deftly) addresses the emotional and physical trauma of returning veterans.
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gurnah is always writing about movement; his characters roam, seek, sometimes return, are rarely satisfied. This richly textured story follows a seemingly successful immigrant who cannot outrun the pain of a mysterious childhood separation or the complexities of a family where movement failed to heal deep fissures.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
From scuttling frantically through the subterranean corridors of a posh Paris hotel to tramping the dusty byways of the Home Counties in search of a place to sleep and a spare meal, Orwell’s foray into poverty is marked by movement. Though distinct from his working-class counterparts by education, the young writer genuinely struggled, which — although he couldn’t help but see himself as in the world but not of it — still stands as an honest and compassionate account of poverty.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Sharak
This novel was recommended by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, who praised its intensity and clarity. The story of lives split and twisted by tribal violence on Cyprus, it explores the penalties of flight, what it means to be rooted, and the long arc of coming to terms with the things that cannot be eluded.
The Wonderful Adventure of Nils by Selma Lagerlof
For a final Nobel Prize name drop, this slightly surreal and unsentimental story of Nils the goose boy who accidentally gets turned into a tiny elf. Lagerlof won the literature prize in 1909, the crowning achievement of a career that included poetry, adult fiction and this classic children’s story. Bold and vivid, the tale of Nils illustrates the critical role movement can play in self-discovery and insight. At home, Nils was cruel, spoiled and selfish; after traversing the skies with a flock of migrant geese, he comes to understand kindness and survival in a new way.