11 Transformative Reads for Solace and Solitude

'Black Boy' by Richard Wright; 'Mastery of Love' by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills; 'Dear Girls' by Ali Wong (Harper Perennial Modern Classics/Amber-Allen Publishing/Penguin Random House LLC)

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”—Maya Angelou

Over the past few weeks, the world has had to adapt to a new normal, including spending more time in solitude. But physical distancing doesn’t have to mean that we are disconnected or glued to our phones—this can also be a time for deep contemplation.

KQED Arts & Culture and the Truth Be Told podcast team asked our readers and listeners, What books have shaped your life? We wanted to know why these books had an impact and why they are still markers of a change—in heart, mind or understanding.

Here's what we gathered from our staff and you.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

I first read Black Boy, a memoir by Richard Wright, in elementary school and my mind was blown! At that age, racism was an abstract concept, and this book changed that for me. In vivid detail, Black Boy illustrates how racism degrades a black boy and lays out the role he must play in America. Because of this book, I remember feeling an immense amount of understanding for what I was seeing in my life as a young girl living in poverty in Detroit. The choices the boys in my life were making to survive the crime in our neighborhoods—it all became clear to me that this was a manifestation of what happens to the oppressed under the weight of racism.

This book was the turning point and a stepping stone towards my understanding of this country.—Tonya Mosley, Truth Be Told host

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot (Crown Publishing Group)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks while in the hospital. The book broke down everything that was exploitative, neglectful and abusive about our medical system. Henrietta’s legacy paved the way for so many modern medical milestones; her body’s cells, HeLa cells, helped scientists create the polio and HPV vaccines, map the human genome, advance treatment for AIDS, cancer and autoimmune disease, and so much more. Why was her story never mentioned when I was in school? Many of us owe our individual and public health to Henrietta.

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In the book, Skloot and the Lacks family illustrate ways the medical system profits off of and reinforces poverty, racism and sexism. This is the reality many people live in—a reality my family and I grew up with. Henrietta’s story is just as relevant, if not more so, today as our healthcare system leaves behind millions and keeps many more in poverty. It was both empowering to read about my connection to Henrietta’s history and sobering to know we have a long way to go.—Vida Kuang, KQED Arts & Culture intern

All About Love by bell hooks

A dear friend recommended this book after he read it himself and I was so nervous to read it. I wasn’t ready to digest how I learned about love and how it shaped my past and present. I was a college sophomore, and not in a romantic relationship, but I knew I had so many family triggers and traumas that informed whom I chose to date and who I was as a partner.

When I read the book, it definitely hit my core. I saw how my chosen family was a better reflection of how I wanted to be loved and by whom. I saw how I was being pulled between the familiar and what I desired for my future self. I learned more about how my personal relationships to the men and women in my family were rooted in culture and capitalism, in fear and love, and in pain and hope. hooks opened my eyes and made me take a real hard look at my relationship with myself, how I interpreted my own worth and what I gave inherent value.

It basically started my marathon of reading all of bell hooks’ work, which have all tended to a wound I refused to let heal.—Isabeth Mendoza, engagement producer for Truth Be Told

'The Mastery of Love' by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills (Amber-Allen Publishing)

The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills

I look back at the summer of 2019 as a tumultuous time when I struggled to connect with others and myself. Law school curtailed my time; and with quality time being my love language, it was hard to appreciate those I love and feel appreciated back. The Mastery of Love has and continues to teach me to be free, willing and loving with myself and others. To not expect anything, to let go of fears from my past that have made me create barriers. It reminded me that happiness and love are within me—I create them. It is crucial to love and appreciate myself first instead of trying to find it in people or activities.—Sureyma Gonzalez

Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria E. Anzaldúa

I grew up in the border cities of Calexico and Mexicali. I had never read a book by someone who had also grown up in a borderland. I had never read a book that used borderlands as a theoretical invitation to [explore how] borderlands are made by culture, ideology, institutions and systems. It educated me and expanded my notions of possibilities. It guides me (to this day) towards bridging, connection, healing and justice.—Ruben E. Canedo Sanchez

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

Assata: An Autobiography is so meaningful to me. I can pick up this book at any moment and be reminded of why social justice work is powerful and necessary! It reminds me to keep fighting for the change I want to see in the world because Assata never stopped imagining a liberated life, even while in prison. Assata is magic and the epitome of bravery. I keep her in mind when educating and organizing in my community always.—Stephanie Franco

'Dear Girls' by Ali Wong (Penguin Random House LLC)

Dear Girls by Ali Wong

Ali Wong's funny and touching Dear Girls left a mark on me because I relate to so many parts of her. I read this book within a day because it was so amusing. Ali talks about her relationship with her mom and how it got better after she had her kids. She talks about her experience of going to Vietnam to study abroad as a college student. Ali’s mom met her in Vietnam and together they visited the village where her mom grew up. It made me think about my mom, when she was my age and what she was doing.

I called to ask her, and it led to an hour-and-a-half-long conversation about her life. When she was my age, she lived in downtown Los Angeles, worked three jobs to save up enough to sponsor her parents and one of her sisters, who came over from Vietnam. When I think about how much I'm not sure of, I remember that I am my mother’s daughter. If she could push herself to keep going, I can keep going and remind myself that I can achieve my goals.—Karen Ta

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables introduced me to the concept that you can create your family from a cadre of friends or "kindred spirits." This idea has shaped the way I view the people I've connected with throughout my life and the reasons we connect. I look at my "family" in awe: they are widely disparate in tastes, experiences and world views, but we connect on a different level as kindred spirits, which I hold dear to the center of what makes me who I am.—Sarah Davis

M. Butterfly and Chinglish by David Henry Hwang

I stumbled upon David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly as a theater arts minor at UC Santa Cruz. At the time, he was the only Asian American playwright I was aware of. I was intrigued by the particular scene of Rene Gallimard staying behind after Song Liling’s performance of Madame Butterfly. Song Liling tears into Gallimard’s praise of “How it was a beautiful tragedy that a young Oriental girl sacrificed herself for a white man.” If it was the other way around, would it still be so beautiful?

Were these the only roles for Asian women? To be quiet, submissive and sacrificial for love? Song Liling’s character defies this. Reading this play led to my interest and advocacy for Asian American representation in all types of media.

Reading Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, you will see English text, Chinese characters and Pinyin stacked on top of each other. As an American Born Chinese, I’m between two languages. I never considered Chinese to be my first language even though my parents spoke it to me, only because I speak English daily and fluently. After all these years, it has turned into "Chinglish."

The plot of Chinglish plays on the miscommunication between Chinese and English speakers. I think about how children of immigrants help their family members translate documents, how conversations are misconstrued due to misuse of words. Chinglish is meaningful to me because although I don’t understand Chinese characters, the English text gives me context. I imagine how someone who cannot read English might feel the same way because of the Chinese characters. Even though there is a disconnect in the words said aloud, having them on paper in the same space connects us.—Anne Wong

'What Happened to Lani Garver' by Carol Plum-Ucci (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company)

What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci

The year was 2003, and I was 11 years old when it dawned on me: I'm gay. Oh shit. At the time, I knew enough to know that society didn't see this (and therefore me) as acceptable. For the next year, I waffled back and forth between deep shame and excitement whenever I found a boy cute because it meant that maybe my sexuality was a fluke and I was normal. And then one day I found this book, What Happened to Lani Garver. I immediately devoured it. I remember it quieting me and enticing me and making me cry out in deep sorrow.

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The book is about Lani, the new kid who pointedly assuages gender pronouns, and Claire, a teenager recovering from leukemia. It's been over 15 years since I've last seen this book, but I remember it was the first step in me letting go of hating myself for being queer. I think it ultimately instilled in me an appreciation of advocacy and living your truth everyday, even if you're met with violence. Looking back now, I can't help but appreciate having a genderqueer role model to guide me from such a young age.—Lisa Pradhan