WSIRN Ep 169: Books that mess you up in all the right ways

WSIRN Ep 169: Books that mess you up in all the right ways

Today you’ll meet Phimy Truong and Erika Thi Benjamin, best friends who share both a passion for work that creates positive change in the world AND practically identical reading taste (as you’ll hear, one of their favorites is shared). Today we’re chatting about the book that taught them radical self-care, how literature has helped them dive more deeply into understanding of their heritage, fictional characters who move between cultures, and the community building work Phimy and Erika are doing in LA through their democracy-driven book club SisterInsider.

This episode covers SO much ground; I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #169: Books that mess you up in all the right ways with Phimy Truong and Erika Thi Benjamin

If you’d like to connect with SisterInsider, follow them on Instagram @sisterinsiderbookclub – their next LA meeting is on February 16th! You can also follow Erika Thi Benjamin at @northamerika, and Phimy Truong at @elephantwomxn.


Books mentioned in this episode:
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If you’d like to support your local indie, check out And by all means, go grab one of these from your local library!

♥♥ Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by Adrienne Maree Brown
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster
 The Girl in The Picture: The Story if Kim Phuc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War by Denise Chong
• Becoming, by Michelle Obama
• The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
• Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, by Judith L. Herman
• The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, by INCITE!
• When They Call You A Terrorist, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
• Her Body and Other Parties,by Carmen Maria Machado
• An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
• Feed The Resistance: Recipes + Ideas for Getting Involved, by Julia Turshen
• Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami
• The Boat People, by Sharon Bala
• A Place For Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza
• Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
• What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan

Also mentioned:

• SisterInsider book club on Instagram


Has a book improved your self-care routine? Tell us in the comments!

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44 comments | Comment


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    • Phimy says:

      Thank you Robert for these recommendations! I loved Pachinko, definitely a haunting and beautiful read. Adding White Chrysanthemum to my list now. 🙂

  1. thegirlintheafternoon says:

    Loved this episode! I want to recommend love Sharmila Sen’s “Not Quite Not White,” which is her memoir of moving to the U.S. from India as a young girl in the early 1980s and how she went from a culture where the idea of race wasn’t a major social marker to being thrust into the black/white binary that characterizes a lot of U.S. thinking about race. She’s a gorgeous writer, and it’s a quick, thoughtful read – and under 200 pages!

    • Phimy says:

      Thank you for the kind words, and for the book rec! Added the book rec, and will definitely share with Erika as well. Sounds like a book that is right up her alley. 🙂

  2. Ashley says:

    If you’re open to middle grade novels-they book Front Desk is fantastic. It’s about a 10 year old girl whose family emigrates from China to the US and gets a job managing a motel. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past 5 years (and I don’t usually read middle grade books-I only read I because my 10-year-old recommended it). It just beautifully captures the immigrant experience, the experience of poverty, racism and what it means to live in America in a way that is real but also not depressing. And it’s semi-autobiographical, a lot of the events that happen in the book actually happened to the author! Oh and it takes place in LA so that might be fun for you all, too.

    • Phimy says:

      Thank you Ashley! I haven’t read a middle grade novel in ages, but might be time for me to dive in. Front Desk sounds fantastic, and I’m adding it to my goodreads list now. 🙂

  3. Rebekah says:

    I would add the graphic novel The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. Set in the US and Vietnam, it’s a beautiful and engrossing illustrated memoir highlighting the bonds between mothers and children and the emotional and physical journey emigrant families take to escape from political unrest.

    • Phimy says:

      What a great rec Rebekah. I really loved The Best We Could Do, and really all work by Thi Bui (she recently illustrated helpful resources/handouts for teachers and parents to discuss immigration with their students/young ones. After reading The Best We Could Do I was definitely extra emotional around my mother. Such a beautiful illustrated memoir.

  4. Donna H. says:

    I don’t have a book to recommend but just wanted to say I really enjoyed this episode and I’m excited to hear about so many books that are new to me. I’ll be following along with your book club on Instagram to see what you end up voting on!

  5. Rebekah says:

    Learning about how people live and the struggles they have had helps me put a face on many issues (historical and social) and bring deeper understanding of this diverse world around me. It’s one of the most beneficial results of my reading life.

  6. Elisabeth says:

    I really loved this episode! I was also thinking about middle-grade for a recommendation. Thanhha Lai’s verse novel, Inside Out and Back Again, is about a young girl who comes to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam, and it’s so beautifully written and ultimately hopeful. (Her second novel, Listen Slowly, is on my TBR list and might also be a good fit.) There are some wonderful YA titles on the themes of migration, family, identity as well. Ibi Zoboi’s American Street and The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.P. Pan are two that come to mind. Thanks for this thoughtful interview and recommendations. I’ve added several books mentioned in this episode to the ever-growing TBR list!

    • Phimy says:

      Thanks for all the great recs, and your kid words Elisabeth! Yesss Thanhha Lai’s novel is so beautiful. I haven’t read Listen Slowly yet, but adding it to my TBR now. I never thought about checking out YA or middle grade novels that touch on the same themes, but after hearing such great recs from everyone here, I’m excited to explore that more. Excited to add American Street on my TBR as well. I received the Astonishing color of After in my book of the month subscription and really appreciated a YA perspective on grief, loss, and identity. Thank you for the thoughtful recommendations! 🙂

  7. Yvonne says:

    A few other book ideas:
    – Ru, by Kim Thuy
    – The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb
    – The Break, by Katherena Vermette

    • Phimy says:

      Thanks Yvonne! Adding all of your recommendations to my TBR list now, and can’t wait to dive into these reads this year. The Break has been recommended multiple times already, so I might pick that one up next. 🙂

  8. Gloria says:

    Great episode! Homegoing, The Boat People and A Place for Us were on my best of 2018 list. I would also recommend The Break by Katherena Vermette, Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez (a trans AOC) and Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala. I love the sound of your book club.

  9. I also really enjoyed this episode – especially how one of the guest’s husband’s wrote in to have her as a guest as a birthday present. That is so sweet! I love that he was sleuthing to figure out what to put as her favorites and a book she didn’t like.

    • Phimy says:

      Thank you Lisa! My husband really was sleuth about the whole thing. After the reveal, he shared that he had spent a few late nights waiting until after I fell asleep before drafting several different versions of the email just so he could get it right. He ended up sending in the sweetest, most thoughtful email ever – it warmed my heart reading it and oh god sorry if i am grossing you out now. Lol.

  10. Stefanie says:

    As a fellow social worker I absolutely loved the concept of reading as self-care. I’ve always felt my self drawn to exactly the type of books you talked about, and this really helped me understand why! Also, I was SO glad you recommended the Boat People – I was hoping you would, one of my favourites from 2018.

    • Phimy says:

      Stefanie – thank you! I’m so appreciative of fellow social workers out there totally getting what I mean about reading as self care. I’m excited to add Boat People to my TBR, and glad to hear it was one of your favorites!

  11. Sarah says:

    I have to pace myself on WSIRN episodes…because there are SO MANY books I want to read! No matter my taste in books, all the books sound good as I listen to Anne describes them.

  12. Liz Hemmerich says:

    Great episode!! I’m also a social worker and I do a lot of trauma work. My favorite book on self-care is Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. She has a self-care model that I teach to all my students in my role as an adjunct social work professor. Also, I love The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry. It reads like a collection of stories but is packed with great information!

    • Erin says:

      Yes! Trauma Stewardship was pivotal in my ability to find balance in working in trauma and enjoying life. I came to the comments to recommend this to Ericka, so glad someone already did. I also use it with staff and interns. The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog is also a great recommendation, although I remind myself to give the disclaimer that it can be upsetting as the trauma is real and intense. I’ve been reading The Body Keeps the Score for several Months and not making much progress, after listening to this episode I’m going to invest attention and time into getting it read.


      • Phimy says:

        Thank you Liz and Erin! I absolutely loved Trauma Stewardship, and definitely should have tried to sneak that into the interview, lol. That book is definitely on my growing list of reading as self care for social workers, one I am continually recommending to new social workers/students and interns. I am still utilizing the exercises she has laid out at the end of that book with my staff, and try to be intentional about providing a supportive space for my fellow colleagues. I haven’t read the boy who was raised as a dog yet but will add that onto my ever growing TBR. 🙂

        Erin – it took me months to get through the Body Keeps the Score, but it was definitely worth it. Dr. van der kolk takes such great care in humanizing people’s experiences with trauma, and not over psycho/pathologizing people. I’m just happy there are more accessible books written about trauma now. I say accessible, but it still took me several months to get through. ;D I hope you enjoy it!

  13. Pam says:

    Thank you Anne for your recommendation for Strange Weather in Tokyo. I’m reading it now and enjoying it! The book that came to my mind as a recommendation (wrt self-care) is The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, because of the way it deals with the grieving process when losing a friend. It’s such a wonderful book!

  14. Lezel says:

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I would highly recommend The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. This is a memoir about how Anh Do’s family of refugees travelled from Vietnam to Australia in a boat and made a life here. Anh Do is now an Australian artist and comedian. The book is well written, and has some hilarious anecdotes about his journey through life. There is a particularly funny anecdote about when he brought his fiancee home for their engagement / wedding celebration – east meets west in a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” sort of way. A lovely story.

  15. I really loved this episode, and am happy to discover the SisterInsider Book Club. I would like to recommend In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. The author writes about her love for the Italian language and her experience moving to Rome with her family to immerse herself in the language. It’s a beautiful exploration of identity, language, and belonging.

    • Phimy says:

      Thank you Katherine! I am so happy you discovered our book club, thanks for following along with us. 🙂 I haven’t read In Other Words yet, so am so happy to be adding that to my personal TBR list. 🙂

  16. Briana says:

    This was a wonderful episode! I added several books to my TBR list. I especially loved listening to the kind, respectful interactions between Phimy and Erika – how you kept checking in with each other as you considered options. Your friendship was lovely to witness via audio.

    I wanted to offer one way into Bessel van der Kolk’s work. (I first heard of him from my beloved therapist who is trained in Somatic Experiencing, which helps release the effects of trauma from the body.) Dr. van der Kolk was a guest on the podcast/public radio show On Being with Krista Tippett on July 11, 2013. He explains many of the concepts of his research through conversation and stories, which are much easier to dig into than the slightly intimidating tome that is his book, The Body Keeps the Score. I’ve listened to that episode a few times and even saved the transcript to return to when I have questions. He offers deeply helpful ways to understand how our bodies can respond to trauma and some surprising options his research has shown tend to promote healing.

    I’m new to the MMD website and not sure if posting links is an option, but here’s the episode and transcript:

    One other book-centered episode of On Being I found really useful also touches on trauma and healing. James Doty, MD is a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founding director of CCARE, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. He authored Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. The story of how he became passionate about this research is a personal, heart-wrenching experience from his own childhood. His episode was on February 11, 2016. I own the book, but haven’t read it yet – the podcast alone made me teary (in a good way)!

    Thank you again for such a strong and loving episode! Warmest wishes to Phimy & Erika!

    • Phimy says:

      Briana – Thank you so much for the thoughtful response, and much, much better explanation/plug into Dr. van der Kolk’s wonderful work. I’m always excited to hear from fellow social working bookworms, so thanks for taking the time to listen and provide your comments. I am going to look into the On Being podcast, and will give the episode with Dr. Bessel a listen, and will also add the other episode on my queue of podcast to listens to on long drives. I greatly appreciate all of this. I think it’s so important to take care of ourselves while we’re working, but also take time to intentionally learn and pinpoint exactly what are clients/communities are going through. Trauma is such an important focus of our work, and understanding it better helps us build a deeper empathy not just to the work itself, but to ourselves. Thanks Briana!

  17. Debbie Vashaw says:

    A book I have read and hat I think the girls would really like is April Rain by Tom Huynh. It’s a book about a family that fled Vietnam. It’s fantastic!!!

  18. Angela says:

    If you have not already read her work, check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Half of a Yellow Sun is incredible, plus you learn about the Biafran War of the late 1960s. A warning that parts of it are tough. I had to take a break from it halfway through to read something lighter, my standard strategy when a book becomes too heavy. If you want something totally fluffy, but also a bit thought-provoking (it did make me think about how we view differences), check out The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.

    • Phimy says:

      Thanks for the recommendation Angela! I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but haven’t’ read Half of a Yellow Sun yet. Going to add this to my list for sure. Thanks for the sharing the warning, it’s helpful to get a heads up. I never got around to finishing the Kiss Quotient, but I was audio-booking it at the time, so maybe I should read it in physical book form. I appreciate you sharing the recs! 🙂

  19. Anissa says:

    Great episode–so many books to add to my TBR! I’d like to add the following re the immigrant experience:
    1. The Book of Untold Americans by Cristina Henriquez. About a Mexican family who immigrated to the US to help their daughter. Hits the buttons of the immigrant experience, family; and chapters are interspersed with vignettes of other immigrants in the apt. complex from other South American countries. You’ll need tissues.

    2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman; riveting look at a Hmong family living in Fresno who have a daughter with severe epilepsy and their interactions with the healthcare system. It was required reading for medical residency programs in the area, and it’s riveting.

    3. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue; a little lighter story of an African family (can’t remember the exact country) who immigrated to NYC and the difficulty of eking out a life in a new country.

    • Phimy says:

      Thanks so much for these lovely recommendations. I appreciate you taking the time to share them, and the descriptions about each book after. Take care. 🙂

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