Red Fern Book Review

What the Oceans Remember

March 15, 2021 Amy Mair Season 1 Episode 8
Red Fern Book Review
What the Oceans Remember
Show Notes Transcript

Join host Amy Mair and Simon Fraser University professor Reema Faris as they explore cultural heritage, identity and memory through the memoir What the Ocean's Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home by Sonja Boon. Reema shares her research on women and reading and recommends a best selling historical novel involving books, World War II and Paris. Need we say more? Amy reviews a new podcast with Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue and digital newsletter The Sunday Paper by Maria Shriver.

The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver
Double Date with Marlo Thomas & Phil Donahue, podcast
What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home by Sonja Boon
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Reema Faris:
Website: Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SFU.GSWS/

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Amy Mair:

Hello, welcome back to the Red Fern Book Review. I am your host Amy Mair. And today we're joined by academic Reema Farris and she's going to talk to us about her research on women and reading. And she's also going to share with us a popular historical novel that I think you'll really enjoy. But before we get to Reema, I wanted to talk with you about a couple of things that I'm reading and listening to right now. The first thing I want to mention is a newsletter that I get in emailed to me each week. And it's called the Sunday Paper with Maria Shriver. This is billed as a modern digital paper. And one of the taglines is Rise Above the Noise. It has heavy Oprah vibes and is definitely a newsletter focused around health, wellness, personal growth. And she also will take topical events and put them into context, or maybe explore reactions that we might be having around the events, and try and put us at ease. It's been so popular that they've added a Wednesday edition as well. So check that out. And the second thing I wanted to mention is a brand new podcast from Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue called Double Date. My friend Sheri just told me about this. It's a brand new podcast. This long-term couple, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, have been together for over 40 years. They sit down with a series of celebrity couples, and talk about what's worked in their relationship and what hasn't. And the idea is they're on a double date. They sit down and have a give and take conversation. And I've just listened to the first episode and it's with Viola Davis and her husband Julius. And what I like about it is you get to hear from people like Viola, but you also Marlo and Phil very much talk about the pitfalls and things that have worked and not worked in their own relationships. So you really feel kind of like a fly on the wall. Plus, any chance to hear Marlo's gravelly voice and Phil Donahue's questions. He's kind of the original, great interviewer. So that's nice. Anyway, that's what I have to say right now. And we're gonna move over and hear from Reema. Hello, Reema, it's good to see you today.Nice for you to have me on.

Reema Faris:

I wanted to intr duce Reema Faris, she is a PhD tudent from the Department of G nder, Sexuality and Women's Stud es at Simon Fraser Univ rsity in Burnaby. The focus of h r research is on women and read ng. And so we had a chat and he's gonna give us a little bit f information about her rese rch. We're going to make sure that it's it's translated, so u non academics can unde stand it and she's going to fi l us in a little bit on that. And then she's selected a book hat she thinks really fits with he times right now and she's gonna elaborate. Then, at the nd, she's gonna give us a fun h storical novel that she's r ading. So to start, Reema h lds an MA in graduate liberal liberal studies from SFU. Sh holds a BA in history and cla sical studies from the Univers ty of British Columbia, and an BA from the University of Toro to. I want to start with the why what is kind of unique about why women read? So it's, it's really interesting when you kind of get into the history of women in reading. I never realized that it was such a trope or an established idea or a cliche or whatever term you want to use, but women and reading have been the focus of society's interest for a very long time. And I think if you think of reading as knowledge and as power the relationship between knowledge and power, you realize why women who have traditionally sort of been on the margins of side of the power center. It's why there was so much intrigue in what they were reading and why they were reading. So if we look at sort of the historical foundations of it, reading was originally really tied into religion, especially in Western Europe with the idea of Christianity. And where it got complicated is when the Bible started to be issued in the vernacular. And women started to read the Bible for themselves people got very concerned. Yeah. Because Oh, my goodness. So why women read is complicated. There's always the basics of it, which is becoming literate, or being able to function in a society that was becoming increasingly focused on print. So there's the just learning to read aspect. Then there's the learning aspect, then there's the imagination aspect. And then there's the using what you learn to ask for different or for more. And that's why I think there's been again, many attempts to control or manage what women read and how they read. Because if someone reads, and then says, Oh, so I don't have to do this, I could do this. Oh, isn't that interesting? There's all of a sudden a challenge to the way that things are organized. And for women who over centuries have been told you need to do this, you need to be this as they start to question that. That, you know, can upset the applecart.

Amy Mair:

I am going to guess and go out on a limb, that the last point is really your interest based on your are of study.

Reema Faris:

I'm intrigued with the connection between reading and change. So we can look at change on a couple of different levels. There's obviously the personal change, but I'm not interested in self help, aside from critiquing self help. Self help is so invested in the notion that you're a broken person, and you have to fix yourself. So it gets very complicated very quickly. But the idea that what we read helps us shape a sense of who we are, and then the way we want to be in the world. And then with the potential to the next step, which is to if we don't like what we see in the world to change it, to make it better, not just for ourselves, for others. And so yeah, that connection, I think, is the is, to me the most interesting.

Amy Mair:

Now talk to me a little bit about book clubs, because I've read your research, and you talk a bit about this. And I know a lot of our listeners are members of book clubs and talk about that form of connection and community, which we can't really all I'm in a book club, and we sometimes do a zoom thing. And it's not the same.

Reema Faris:

That's what I heard. I actually I met up with a friend of mine yesterday, who who is 95 years old. Yeah, and is a member of a book club. They've been going for about 14 years. And she said the exact same thing you just said, Amy, she said, You know, we're just not to say, book clubs have been a traditional way for women to get together to talk about what they've been reading. And there's a really long history of women gathering to talk about what they read. In our more contemporary times, there was a there's a book by a woman named Elizabeth Long, and she was one of the first to study book clubs and what they meant in reality versus what academics thought they meant. And book clubs are a space where women can gather and share the experience their life experiences, as reflected through text. So book clubs serve a lot of different purposes. But fundamentally, it's about that connection. The interesting thing about book clubs, is they're maybe not always as egalitarian as the people who are in book clubs like to think they are. So people tell me more about that. So people who are in book clubs like to think, oh, we're really diverse. But what Elizabeth Long study showed is that, in fact, the diversity within book clubs may not be as great as people think they are. And that sometimes when when women gather in book clubs, there can be people who are hesitant to speak out, or people leave, because they don't feel welcome. They don't feel like they fit in. Right. So it's a very interesting tension as a place where women can gather to connect. There are power dynamics at work, even within book clubs. So it's interesting how that operates both as a welcoming space but also with the potential to be a little bit exclusionary, and some of this studies in academia of women readers, argues that the reason reading plays such a big role in identity formation is that women identify with the characters, right? So they identify, and they're able to see their stories reflected. And that's why it's been so important for women to gain prominence in the public sphere as authors, because they can speak to women's experiences, right? So they are writing from what they know. And so that sense of identification is there. However, and in academia, we do this all the time, right? That's the identification. There's also the potential for people not to see themselves reflected. And that's why it's so important to make sure that diverse voices are published, printed, and distributed, so that people can see life from many different perspectives. And not just, it's not just about identification with characters that look or sound or are similar to us. It's also about understanding the real lives of other people, and being able to develop an empathy or a connection there and see it as a path to learning as well.

Amy Mair:

Now, another part of your research, you talk about how people rely on a book culture to make decisions when finding books and they find it saves time. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Reema Faris:

Sure. So it's really a really an interesting phenomena. So for those of us who are old enough to remember when Oprah Winfrey was king of, sorry, king, queen, daytime television, one of those things she did is introduced the Oprah book club, right. And that Oprah book club has been studied, again, from a number of different scholars and their different views on what it accomplished, but she did actually have a profound impact in publishing at the time. So the books that she recommended did become bestsellers. So people would rely on an Oprah title to help them find books to read with a sense of a bigger purpose. There's nothing wrong with reading for enjoyment. But Oprah was very much about using reading as a stepping stone to learning and learning about things we might not know about, or, or the, the topics that we find difficult to talk about. So Oprah was in the history of book culture is one of those points that scholars focus on because it changed reading significantly, it became a way for people to find titles to read and also to share. Okay, so let's move over and talk about the books that you're recommending. And you have promised me we have a little discussion about this ahead of time. This is an academic book. And at first I was like, Okay, I need to know a little bit more about this. But you described it to me as a, a book about history, memory, and families, but it's not a downer. So I'm in, I'm in it.

Unknown:

Thank you.

Amy Mair:

So tell me about the book you recommended and and why?

Reema Faris:

Sure. So the book's title is What the Ocean's

Remember:

Searching for Belonging and Home. It's written by Sonja Boone, who's a professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. And Sonia was the first PhD recipient from our department and as a few from the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies or GSWS, for short. And the whole way that I found out about this book was because in celebrating our 50th anniversary, there was an event organized with Sonja and the department asked me to be the interviewer. So I helped to moderate a book club for six weeks as we read this book, and then had the great opportunity to interview Sonja, who's fantastic. She's wonderful. I was so happy to meet her and so happy to get into this book. It's issued from the Wilfred Laurier University Press life writing series. And so if you're interested in memoir and life writing, there's a whole backlist there to explore. So Sonja's father is Dutch. And her mother is from Suriname, a very mixed heritage. And one of her cousins had this idea to do a family tree. So Sonja, whose previous academic work involves digging around in archives thought this would be a great opportunity. But she learned a lot along the way. So the book is her voyage into finding out about her family, but it raises questions about history, family history, why it's important to us. It raises questions about archives and how archives work. It raises questions about belonging or need for belonging. And it's all written in a very musical style because before she returned to academia, Sonja was a professional musician. I find that really amazing.

Amy Mair:

Was it lyrical?

Reema Faris:

Yes, some of her passages the way she describes things, she puts you right in the moment, but there's also a rhythm to it, like looks like a musical rhythm. Almost. Okay. So in the book, you go to the Netherlands, you go to Suriname, but you go back in time to the history of slavery, which is a part of Sonja's ancestry. And she starts the book with an epigram by Lord Eden, Edith Civil Way. And this is the epigram. The past is remembered and told by desire. And I love that because it makes you think, okay, if I'm spending time to remember the past, whose desire Am I expressing? And so part of what Sonja discovers is that she was trying that she wanted certain things from history. And some she found and some she didn't find. And for someone who was familiar with archives, she was awfully surprised by what she discovered, through this quest through this journey.

Amy Mair:

Did she have I mean, we all have family stories, did she have sort of a version of her of her life? And then find it was maybe not quite what she thought?

Reema Faris:

Yes, I won't go go into spoilers. But I think, for Sonja, she was looking to go into the archives to come out with answers. And what she found is that she ended up with more questions. She also found that portions of her family history are only evident in fragments. So the question becomes, when you only have access to fragments, how you put that together. And so she talks about not as singular past but multiple pasts, because she talks about her great, I think it's her great, great grandmother, who came from India as an indentured servant with a young son all the way to Suriname. And there's very little information that she was able to find. And so she imagines all sorts of different pasts for her relative. She doesn't know there's no way for her to know which one of those may be true. More true. She can only speculate. So she had to find a level of comfort in letting some of her desire to make the past whole to let that go.

Amy Mair:

Is there an extra level being an academic as well? Because I, my stereotype, is that, wow, that you need a little bit of control that you look for the actual absolute fact.

Reema Faris:

Yes, and her previous research had involved archival work. So she's very familiar with archives and how they work. And some of her descriptions of the magic of being in the archives and connecting with the past is is wonderful, right? But she was not prepared for what the her experience with the archives in this situation was going to be. So she was surprised. And it's just lovely to read, because there's kind of like this journey of unfolding and discovery, and then having to come back with new understandings. But as I said, the biggest lesson and I think, you know, I love history, I've always loved history. And similar to you, there are certain family stories that we cling on to because they're told to us over and over again. And there are other stories or other parts of our history that we may no longer have access to. So how do we have comfort with that? If what drives us forward is a desire back to that idea of desire, a desire to know who we are and where we're from? And if we don't have categorical answers for those. How do we deal with that?

Amy Mair:

This reminds of a TV show and I just looked it up. There's a show, it might be PBS in the States, called Who Do You Think You Are?

Reema Faris:

Yes, I love that show.

Amy Mair:

That's a great show. And actually, that kind of combines the whole celebrity thing which we talked about earlier, right? And there's always there's always some really fascinating story. And the other thing that I like about that show is, it's usually many, many generations removed that whatever the big event happened, like the war, or someone was a servant. And it's very emotional. Often the person breaks down in tears to hear the journey of this person, their great, great, great, great grandfather. And I find that really fascinating.

Unknown:

For Sonja, part of her family legacy is tied to slavery. So she has to come face to face with the reality of her ancestors being captured and being brought into what was at the time Dutch Guiana now Suriname. And there's one segment one of the most moving segments in the book for me, there's about three pages she's looking at the plantations in Suriname. There was a ledger with the list of the slaves in the ledgers and she finds the ledgers from plantation where her ancestors lived and were enslaved. And she takes like three pages of this book to list all the names. And when I was reading the book, I started to skim because I saw Oh, it's just the list. It's a list of names, right? Just names. And I stopped myself, I said, No. And I went right back. And I started and I read every single name, because I felt that was a way of acknowledging these people who had lived and suffered, but also had lives and probably laughed and loved and in these very difficult circumstances. I felt it was so important to go and read each of the names. And I asked Sonia about that when we had our author event, and she said there was a reading that she did. And she chose to read just that section. So her reading, I was reading out the names of each of the each of the people that she's listed in the book. And that That, to me is so powerful.

Amy Mair:

Have you seen the Have you been to Washington, DC, and seen the Vietnam Memorial? Have you seen that?

Reema Faris:

No, I have never been to Washington.

Amy Mair:

So I have been a few times. But I the first time I saw the Vietnam War Memorial, which I'm sure you know about, which is the names, just the names. And I forget, but I believe it starts kind of high and then get smaller as you go along. But I could not believe I broke down in tears, just seeing the names. I am American. So I have that connection with the feeling about the war, but I don't really in that I don't know anybody directly. It just was so powerful just to see the names because it was what you said, just thinking of these people. And many of them that went didn't have power themselves. And then you see those names in it.

Reema Faris:

In, in academia, in my field, there's a concept called intersectionality. And the originator of that term is Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, who's a legal scholar from the U.S. And there's a TED talk. So if you just if you Google, you know, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality TED Talk, it'll come up. And it's an incredible presentation around police violence in the U.S, that against black women. And it focuses in on the campaign of say her name. So this tendency, we have to try and obscure the reality of victims, because it makes life more comfortable for the rest of us to kind of obscure or not look at the face of violence straight on. That's why all these campaigns around, say her name, or listing names or recognizing names, as you've described in the memorial is so powerful, because it takes the anonymity of victimhood and makes it real, it makes it about a real person who had a real life who had a life who had joys and sorrows and, and and makes us say, what happened to them is not fair. It's not just let's see how we can change that. And that brings us back to the idea where reading can be a path to I'm discovering where these in equities and injustices are. And what we need to do to make the world different and better.

Amy Mair:

You mentioned, casually mentioned a book that you're reading right now, or that you've just finished. And I think it's gonna be an interest to a lot of people. My friend, Allison will be laughing if she hears this or when she hears this, because I do tend to like historical fiction.

Unknown:

It's called the Paris Library. And for those who know me, they know I bought the book because it has two of my favorite things in the title. I knew nothing about the book. I was in a local bookstore. And I saw it and I said, Oh, Paris Library. It's about the American Library in Paris, which I knew nothing about. So it is historical fiction based on real people and a real place. And it set in World War II Paris, as well as early 1980s, Montana, and I'll leave it for your listeners if they decide to read the book to, to understand how Paris and Montana become connected. It's about going back to our idea of community. So the American Library in Paris is a place of community, and the characters and the people that lived there. And so during the Second World War, with Paris under occupation, it stayed open. And it were it was the librarians who made every effort to stay open. But it talks about what life was like in Paris under the occupation, it talks about the importance of books, it talks about the way we build community through through through books. And the modern part of the book, which is set in Montana has to do with the the main character connecting with a young woman. And again, developing a relationship that is based on books and how books can help and guide us through life's tough times. But it's not books alone again, right. It's the power of books as we engage with the text and engage with each other around the text. That's beautiful.

Reema Faris:

A great way to conclude. Reema, I want to thank you so much for joining joining me today. It was a lot of fun. It's my pleasure. This was fun. I'm always happy to talk. Thank you. Thank you so much to Reema for joining us today. I will have all the details about the book and resources mentioned in the show notes. And I wanted to encourage you to join me next week. I'm going to be joined by book blogger, Susan Matheson, from Bedside Table Books. And we're going to get together and do a preview of spring books. So look forward to seeing you then. Talk to you later.