Today I’m chatting with education navigator Hanan Al-Zubaidy about literacy in the justice system, and how her work with incarcerated students has been affected by this time of social distancing.
Hanan came to me looking for an escapist reading experience, but I was surprised to find she didn’t mean happy endings and rainbows. She escapes her day to day life by submerging herself in someone else’s complex, difficult world (fiction or non!) and learning and growing from that experience. So if you read lists of ‘escapist fiction’ that’s full of peppy romance and thrilling action thinking “ehhh that won’t do it for me,” maybe you’ll find what you’ve been looking for in my picks for Hanan today.
Let’s get to it!
‘Unbox’ the Summer Reading Guide with us
Readers, the ninth annual Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide comes out next week!
Before the guide is officially released Brenna and I are doing a live video event with members of our Patreon community. I’ll give you a preview of all of the books and what excites me about them.
This is one of the events our community looks forward to the most. The bookish enthusiasm is off the charts.
If you’ve ever wondered about joining our readerly community over on Patreon this is the time. Go to Patreon to learn more about the unboxing event and even watch the video replay of last year’s unboxing. Then sign up and join us on May 12th.
HANAN: I ended up telling my English instructor that I lost the book but I actually kept it secretly. [ANNE GASPS, BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 233.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, the lilacs are blooming, the nights are getting warmer, and my iced tea is ready. It’s almost summer reading season. We are just one week away from releasing my ninth Summer Reading Guide. This is my annual nod to those lazy days on the porch swing and the long evenings where you can tell yourself it’s not even dark yet as you turn one more page, and then one more. This year we have an embarrassment of riches with so many great books coming out. This is my guide to books I’ve read and loved for the current season. The ones I can’t wait to recommend.
Everyone who's signed up for our email newsletter gets the guide when it comes out in mid-May, but before the guide is officially released, we’re doing a live unboxing for our What Should I Read Next patreon supporters. I’ll reveal all the titles in the guide one by one and tell you exactly why I chose each one. This year’s summer reading guide unboxing takes place May 12th and for the first time we’re doing two times that day to make it easier for you to attend live. We’ll meet at both noon and 7 P.M. eastern time. And our patrons and also Modern Mrs Darcy book club members will get the guide that same day. We’ll release it to the public later that week. This is one of the events our community looks forward to the most each year. The bookish enthusiasm is off the charts, and one more thing.
In addition to the live unboxing, this year our patreon supporters get an expanded summer reading guide with additional titles, extra book lists, and more fun bonus content. If you’ve ever wondered about joining our readerly community over on Patreon, this is the time. Go to Patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext now to get more info and sign up. And a note about Patreon, that’s simply the name of the platform we use for our What Should I Read Next community because Patreon makes it super simple to share bonus content, including bonus podcast episodes with you.
Get the low down at Patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext. That’s patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
Today I’m chatting with education navigator Hanan Al-Zubaidy about literacy in the justice system and how her work with incarcerated students has been affected by this time of social distancing. I’ll give you a hint that I was surprised by the answer. It seems so many of us are working virtually these days, but Hanan is relying on snail mail more than she has in years.
She came to me looking for an escapist reading experience. I thought I knew what that meant. I was surprised to discover she didn’t mean happy endings and rainbows. Hanan escapes her day to day life by submerging herself in someone else’s complex, difficult world. Whether that’s fictional or not. And learning and growing from that experience. So if you read lists of escapist fiction that’s full of peppy romance and thrilling action, thinking eh, that won’t do it for me. Well maybe you’ll find what you’ve been looking for in my picks for Hanan today. Let’s get to it.
Hanan, welcome to the show.
HANAN: Thanks for having me.
ANNE: Start by telling me a little bit about where you are in the world and what you’re doing now.
HANAN: I currently live in Vancouver, WA. I’m originally from Portland, OR so not too far off. And I work in a men’s minimum security prison as an education navigator.
ANNE: What does that mean? An education navigator?
HANAN: Think high school counselor. So in high school you go to your counselor when you’re ready to go to college, but I work with students that are incarcerated, guys that want to go to college when they get out, who are interested in pursuing higher ed but have never had that opportunity. And I work with students anywhere from their education journey, whether or not they have a high school diploma. Anything that they want and I sorta help guide them through that process.
ANNE: So what age are these guys that you work with?
HANAN: Anywhere from 18 and up.
ANNE: How did you come into that line of work?
HANAN: Like all good grad students [LAUGHS], I was procrastinating on an assignment, scrolling through my email and we got a listserv that had recommended a job for an internship opportunity that was at a correctional center. And I’d always been fascinated by the justice system, so I saw this on the listserv and I thought to myself, I’ve never seen or had this opportunity before, why not?
So I started off as an intern there. I was tutoring in an English classroom, and so I was helping guys with their English homework and reading assignments and all this stuff. And I really loved the job. I loved the position. It wasn’t something that I had ever seen myself in, you know, I’m a young woman and a lot of people didn’t expect me to go into that field. It really opened up my eyes to a lot of things, and so when a position opened up, I ended up applying for it. So that’s where I am now.
ANNE: Tell me more about being always fascinated by the justice system.
HANAN: My family is originally from Iraq, and they were persecuted there by the regime, and so they ended up leaving Iraq. And they were in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia where my parents had met and I was born, and you know, then we came to the United States. My family was heavily persecuted, particularly my grandfather. He was definitely somebody who stood up against the regime in a lot of ways. One of the ways being he would have banned books that were banned by the government.
And so he was persecuted heavily by the justice system there, and spent a lot of time in prison. My family doesn’t actually know what ended up happening to him. It’s likely that he ended up dying in prison in Iraq, but no one really knows exactly what happened. And that sorta sparked my interest in what is this idea of justice? Why are people going to places like prison? What is the point? Because it just felt so wrong, that somebody was standing up against injustice and was spending time in prison. And from there I started learning a lot about the justice system in the United States and all the things that go into that and all the injustices that go into that, and from there it just sparked my interests further.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so sorry for that tragedy that first planted that seed.
HANAN: Thank you.
ANNE: So many of us listeners, we know that this happens, and we know how people are persecuted and imprisoned for having literature. But we know it intellectually. We don’t experience it the way that your family has.
HANAN: For my mom, it’s sorta knowing that and seeing that she planted that seed in us, this love of books and reading because I think that she realized just how powerful it is, and that somebody could lose their lives over that. And it’s really a privilege for us to be able to go to the library and pick up a book that somebody may be killed for.
ANNE: Is that something that you are always cognizant of? Do you ever catch yourself forgetting?
HANAN: No, I’m always aware of that. Books to me are magical and powerful. I never forget that. It’s like a deep respect, almost. It’s like a love for reading, but also deep respect for the power that they have and the impact that they have on the world around us. It’s very much a huge part of my life and I try not to let myself forget how powerful they are because that’s where I came from.
ANNE: And then you take that deep belief in the power of books and that deep respect you have and you take it into your workplace every day. Maybe not physically just at the moment and we’ll talk about that, but tell me what that’s like. I mean, both for you, and for these guys that you’re working with.
HANAN: Like I said, I love books and reading and with that, I love education. I love learning. And I know that the education system in the United States hasn’t always been the most fair for a lot of people.
HANAN: As a result, a lot of the guys that I work with don’t have a very positive relationship with education. And I really try to acknowledge that. I try to acknowledge so that they end up finding that love for books the same way I have, or that love for reading. And so I usually start off my meetings with students by acknowledging that I know there’s trauma associated with the world of education and academia, and that I’m not here to force it on you. And that usually allows for more conversation between us. They’ll usually ask about what book I’m reading, have conversations with me along those lines.
I try to bring that love and to share it with those around me, those who don’t see books and reading or education the same way that I have because they were directly impacted in an unjust way by this system. And so I want to change that narrative for them and help them see for themselves that they can take that back for themselves.
ANNE: Hanan, I’d loved to hear a little bit about, obviously without violating any confidentiality, you can do us a nice composite like they do in nonfiction books sometimes. I’d love to hear the specifics of what it looks like to work with one of your students in prison. What are your goals for them? What are their goals for themselves? What does it look like?
HANAN: My day’s usually dependent on their movement schedule, so in prisons people aren’t just walking about. So usually I will meet with a student in the afternoon. So I have to set up a call out system, which is basically a way of getting them down to my office, and then we meet. I usually do one-on-one meetings with students, so what that involves is me sitting with them, asking them the basics, like what county are you going to be heading towards? Which resources do you need? Because as much as I love education, I know that people aren’t going to pursue that if they don’t have their basic needs met, and so I usually address those things first.
And then from there I usually talk to them about what do you want to do? What is it that you see or envision yourself doing? And then asking them questions like what has your experience with education been? What is your experience, you know, whatever they’re comfortable disclosing or sharing with me. I just sorta go where the conversation takes me, and a lot of times we end up Googling things and researching things because a lot of my students don’t have access.
Well none of my students have access to Internet, so think like … If you have a child that wants to go to college and they can just hop on and search that college. Well my students don’t have that access. They have outdated materials such as college catalogs from 2007 that are no longer applicable because our world has moved entirely digital. And they are not in that digital world yet. I have to bridge that for them and connect them with the world that’s outside and prepare them for that. You know, I work with students that have been incarcerated for 15+ years and thinking about what the world looked like then and how it looks like now and trying to figure out how to bridge that so there isn’t that culture shock when they get out.
So a lot of it is just conversational, really like learning about where they want to go and then going through the logistic steps of how are we going to get you from here to there. And then I also meet with students on a large scale, so I host orientations. I talk about education of students. I host workshops, career building, resume building workshops. I work with a lot of different students on a lot of different projects that they might have, like culture groups. I get reached out to a lot from the students that are incarcerated. They often times want me to speak at an event or something like that, and usually it’s always to education and I always tie in books and reading with that.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Sneak it in. [HANAN LAUGHS] Hanan, what’s a favorite part of the job for you?
HANAN: I think how much I learned from the people that I work with. You can sorta read about this stuff and watch all the documentaries you want, but when you sit face to face with somebody that’s going through it and experiencing it, you get to see the person behind all the statistics. And I think that really changes your worldview and a lot of people have their opinions about the system, but there’s nothing like stepping foot into it and actually seeing it with your own eyes.
ANNE: Tough spot on the job?
HANAN: I think it would be the same answers, seeing the person behind the statistic and seeing that pain and the struggle that a lot of them have gone through and their life experiences that have sorta put them on a trajectory to where they are now. It’s both rewarding and seeing how much people have overcome but also difficult to see that that’s the reality for so many people.
ANNE: Hanan, because you and I are talking in the midst of the Coronavirus where so many Americans are still working from home; they’re shelter-in-place orders in many states. Many of us are using technology we’ve never used before in order to communicate with our coworkers and with our workplaces.
For example, our podcast has been impacted in ways we didn’t expect because now we cannot get the headsets that we always send our guests, so we have great sound quality because they’ve been snatched up by everyone working from home. We don’t begrudge them that; we know that good sound is important. But also we just never foresaw not having headsets for our guests, so you and I are improvising today. You’re working from home too, and yet I know you’re not telecommunity. Would you tell me what that process is like for you now?
HANAN: It is an adjustment. It feels like everyone sorta stepped into the digital age, and I took ten steps back. I have to snail mail my students packets or information, so we have a variety of different classes that are offered. So we have anywhere from GED classes to business vocational classes that the students can take. And our professors, our instructors, are having to pull everything off of the web and create packets to mail to students that will then be mailed back to the instructors.
And if I have a student that I know is releasing, any information that I would normally type up and just print on the spot for them, I now have to mail into the facility. And I don’t have access to be able to communicate with my students because of the virus. So letter writing, a lot of different things like that, in order to communicate with each other which is weird because all over the Internet, you’re seeing everyone talk about their Zoom meetings, all of that stuff and we’re here mailing letters. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: How do you find that?
HANAN: I am an old-soul. I have like my own stationery kits and my wax seals, which I don’t obviously use for this, but I don’t mind the letter writing. But it’s definitely an adjustment. I think that this pandemic is really shedding light on a lot of things that we have in our world and I think that this is one of those, the justice system, the way it works, that I hope will change as a result of this. Our students don’t have access to a lot of the same stuff that other students might.
ANNE: The prison you work in doesn’t have cell and Internet access for anyone. Is that commonly true?
HANAN: Yes. So you can’t bring in a cell phone inside the facility, and then Internet is whatever’s provided on your desktop, and that’s very limited. So I can usually access things like your website’s not actually blocked, so I sometimes listen to the podcast. [BOTH LAUGH] So we - we as staff can get access to certain things, but the students have zero access to the net.
ANNE: Has your work as an education navigator changed your own reading life?
HANAN: Yes. In different ways. It definitely helped my reading life where I would always take a book with me for, like, my breaks and like my lunch break. Because I really try to make sure I have a balance and I’m not working through my breaks because it can be really easy to do that. I will always be reading on my lunch breaks, and it’s really funny because like I remember one time I was, like, reading on my lunch break and in my prison, there’s a lot of windows so they can see into my office. So some student had knocked on the door and then I heard another student say like, “hey man, don’t disturb her, she’s reading.” [LAUGHS] So it was really sweet.
Another thing that also changed my reading life was just the kinds of books I read. I try to read more fiction ‘cause I am trying to look for a little bit of that escape from the realities of the world as before I wasn’t surrounded by every single day, like I was okay with reading so much about it. But now that I’m there, I try to read things that can either help me escape or take me out of where I am.
ANNE: Well, Hanan, after hearing all that, I’m so curious to hear more about the books you’re choosing to read for your reading life right now. Are you ready to go there?
HANAN: Yes, I am.
ANNE: Well you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you loved, one book you don’t, and what you’re reading now and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. So how did you go about choosing these books?
HANAN: I chose the books that have stuck with me through the years. Books that have just like spoken to my soul it feels like, and so those are how I selected the books that I loved. And also how I selected the books that I didn’t like. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear. What did you choose for your first favorite?
HANAN: My first favorite would be The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. When I was in high school it was required reading. I had sorta fallen out of love of reading during that time. I really wasn’t into it as much as I had been as I was a child, and so I wasn’t really excited for it. For some reason this book spoke to me. I ended up telling my English instructor that I lost the book, but I actually kept it secretly. [ANNE GASPS]
ANNE: That does say a lot about how you felt about it.
HANAN: [LAUGHS] It rekindled that love for me I had lost along the way. The storyline as well, the injustices of it, just spoke to me and absolutely loved it.
ANNE: I think it’s so interesting that you chose a classic from high school because many readers remember fondly how a great teacher, like, woke them up to the power to what had previously been just a dusty book that they didn’t understand what, you know, why people saw anything worth coming back to. And at the same time so many readers are basically traumatized and never want to touch anything 100 years again after suffering through a high school English class. Was it the book? Was it the teacher? What do you remember about that high school experience aside from your book crime? [BOTH LAUGH]
HANAN: So my high school was a magnet science and technology school. So we didn’t read a lot of the classics that a lot of people have that experience. There’s a lot of classics that people talk about that I haven't read because my high school wasn’t focused on that. It was very focused on the technology and science aspect of things. My English instructor, as well as just the environment there, not having it really be forced on us, was what made me okay with picking it up.
And then I think I just got caught up in the story. For those who have read the book when you find out who the father is shocked me and like, when I was fifteen, I was so confused. Like how could this happen, and then I started, like, thinking about the world around me, and I was like this still happens today. We’re still accusing women. There’s still this concept of the scarlet letter. It really, like, woke something up inside of me that I didn’t expect. And my instructor definitely saw that and she ran with it. Like she was encouraging me to write about it, and like she could see those feelings start to happen, and she really encouraged me in that sense with continuing that love for books. And from there I just rekindled that love that had always existed as a child, but took like a break during high school. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You’re not alone in that, and I”m so glad it stuck with you. Okay, so that’s The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hanan, what’s book number two?
HANAN: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I don’t even think I have the words to describe it. I reread this book close to a dozen times, and every single time the end just guts me and I’m just heart shattered. I love really sad stories, but this book is set in Afghanistan and it tells the story of two women sorta separately, and then when their lives come together. And it really spoke to the, like, bonds of sisterhood and learning about the struggles about men in Afghanistan and the things that they were experiencing. But Khaled Hosseini just writes so beautifully. I’m not sure if you’ve read this book.
ANNE: No, I haven’t read this one. I read Hosseini, but I’ve not read this one.
HANAN: This one is my favorite out of all of his books. I always tell people to read the other ones before they read this one because you can’t go back after you read this one.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That’s saying a lot.
HANAN: It tugs at your heartstrings, so if you’re not somebody that likes sad books, this is probably not the best book or the best option, but I get it. Just … he writes so beautifully, like, I never seen pain written so beautifully.
ANNE: That is quite a quote.
HANAN: [LAUGHS] He’s a remarkable author and the storyline is just heart shattering beautiful and I loved it. I read it when I was younger, and it’s just one of those books that I keep rereading. I actually wanted to reread it the other day and I was looking for it on my shelf, and I gave it to somebody to borrow, and I can’t get it back from them because of the quarantine. So I’m a little bit sad.
ANNE: I’m sorry about that. [HANAN LAUGHS] Also you’re not alone with that either.
ANNE: Well that sounds amazing and it does make me want to read it immediately. Isn’t it funny how so many times I find when people say I loved it so much, I just don’t have the words, I think sign me up? [LAUGHS] when I hear paragraph after paragraph about the plot, I think, well, I don’t know. But the book that you loved more than words was A Thousands Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
HANAN: Yes. And I used to when I was younger, I used to read the last page of the book before I started the book, and this was the first book that I didn’t do that with. I had a bet with my friend who told me not to do it when she had handed me this book to me. I think that’s also why it stuck with me for so long because I didn’t spoil it for myself. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I had not read this one, but I know that Hosseini is amazing at the slow build that ends up like swiftly kicking you in the gut.
HANAN: He is. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Making note of that. Hanan, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?
HANAN: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
ANNE: Tell me more.
HANAN: This book is written by Bryan Stevenson, who is an attorney, and he writes this book about looking into the justice system and looking at those who are wrongfully convinced and are on the death penalty. And it follows one case specifically throughout the book. Again it’s one of those nonfiction books that reads like a story. It is a story. He brings and sheds light on so many of the issues that we see in our justice system. He does it in just a remarkable way, and it’s very accessible. I think that there’s a lot of books out there that talk about the justice system in a way that a lot of people might not connect with, but Bryan Stevenson’s way of sharing the story of those who are incarcerated connects you on a human level while also bringing up these issues that are important and necessary for us to talk about.
It was recently made into a movie with Michael B. Jordan and I was very nervous because I don’t like movies about my favorite books, but the movie lived up to the expectation as well. I just feel like you can’t go wrong with this story.
ANNE: That’s a relief because I love Michael B. Jordan and I love this book, and I have been similarly nervous but haven’t seen it yet.
HANAN: I highly recommend. I watched it two times in theaters.
ANNE: Okay! That’s a lot. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: So that was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Okay, now, Hanan, tell me about the book that is not for you.
HANAN: You Are A Badass, and I don’t remember the rest of the title because I don’t like it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: You just blocked it out.
HANAN: Yeah, I just, I don’t even remember who wrote it.
ANNE: Jen Sincero.
HANAN: Well I’m sorry to them, but I didn’t really like their book. [BOTH LAUGH] You know when you go into a bookstore and there is a staff recommended books? Usually I love those. Powell’s is my bookstore, so usually they don’t let me down, but this was on that list and I … It didn’t speak to me. It just felt like this happy go-lucky, like, kind of thing, and I’m not that kind of a person as you can tell from all the books that I chose earlier. They kinda have like dark undertones. [LAUGHS] And so I wasn’t really into the idea of it. It just didn’t speak to my soul the way other books had. I couldn’t … Someone asked to borrow it, and I was like, well you can just keep it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Okay, funny thing. I read You Are a Badass, I think, at Making Money. It’s a follow-up book to this, but the reason I read it is because it was highly recommended. Actually, listeners, you can go back and listen to our live episode from Asheville at Malaprop’s bookstore, and I love Melanie McNair, who’s no longer there. And we have a lot of books in common, but what she said was, “I didn’t expect to like this, but I just loved the voice.” And I thought I want to read something someone whose taste I admire like says has a great voice.
So I think I requested both from the library and read whichever one came in first and I know lots of people have really enjoyed this, but okay. So if I had to guess, Hanan, I would say this didn’t work for you is because all the books you love or at least the ones we’ve talked about here today that have stuck with you today have nuance and subtlety, and they take a multifaceted approach to the issue and there isn’t like an issue. The core of the book, You Are A Badass, like that powerful voice that Melanie loved, was very clear, direct, straightforward, single focused, and it really lacked the nuance that you loved in your writing. That’s my theory. How does it sound?
HANAN: It sounds like you had read my heart ‘cause I’ve never [ANNE LAUGHS] knew how to describe it.
ANNE: So as we look for books for you, and I’ve got some questions before we do, but as we look for books for you, we’re going to look for books that do have some subtlety in their approach. What are you reading right now?
HANAN: I am reading The Count of Monte Cristo. My friend has been on me to read it. I got through page one. [BOTH LAUGH] And then I’m also reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Also listening to on audio The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
ANNE: How is that on audio?
HANAN: It’s pretty good.
ANNE: Okay. That’s good to hear. And that’s interesting that you said you were reading The Count of Monte Cristo because you said that you like to read about justice, and that is classic in the genre. Readers hotly disagree about this, and I still need to read The Count of Monte Cristo, I haven’t yet. But some people who adore books say it’s their favorite say, Anne, this is one time you can totally just go for the abridged version. It will be fine. But I know other readers think that’s sacrilegious. Are you reading like the full 1200 pager?
HANAN: I think so, yeah. I bought it at a used bookstore and it’s pretty huge. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m - I’m excited. I don’t mind how big it is. It’s never … I read Anna Karenina in one week ‘cause I just, like, loved the story.
ANNE: Hanan, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
HANAN: I think what I’m looking for in my reading life is something to help me escape the world but also still stay in the world so I want to know and learn about people around the world and things that they are going through, but escape my own personal world.
ANNE: So you want books that help you escape and take you out of where you are, but also you said like I like to read about hard things.
ANNE: And that you like sad books.
HANAN: I don’t necessarily want to escape into a happy place. I’m okay with escaping [ANNE LAUGHS] into, like, somebody else’s darkness. I like learning and I don’t believe that the world is just roses and daisies, and so I like to read about the experiences. Because I grew up, you know, like I said earlier, my family’s from Iraq. I don’t really remember that struggle, and so I like to learn about the struggles that people face just because I feel like as somebody who had the privilege of having their family go through all that they went through to get here, I have a voice that I should use and learn about those who are struggling around the world. And so like I said, I’m okay with going into dark places.
ANNE: This might be a tough sell but I think you’re going to like it. Or at least I hope so. Have you read anything by Maggie O’Farrell?
ANNE: if you had, her most recent books have been I Am, I Am, I Am, which is a memoir, which is amazing. She shares 17 near death experiences that she had herself. When I read the premise I thought there’s no way that this woman has almost died 17 times and then I read the book and just wow. Kinda a tough read, or was for me because it’s scary sometimes, but oh, it’s so good. And then her most recent novel is This Must Be The Place. Her new book is out in the U.K. It came out on March 31st, and it’s due to come out in the United States in July, and I say due to come out because in our current coronavirus disrupted publishing landscape, pub dates are shifting all over the place, but since it is already out in the U.K., I imagine that the U.S. release won’t be too far off the current plan.
I love her, and I was kinda disappointed to be honest when I found out what the subject of her next book was, and then I read it and I loved it, and it’s so, so sad. But it takes you to a completely different world, a completely different time. One that’s perhaps all together familiar because it is the world of Shakespeare. The book is called Hamnet, and I have to say, the U.K. cover is gorgeous, and the U.S. cover not as much. [HANAN LAUGHS] But this is the book I didn’t know I wanted to read right now, and readers everywhere, take note, this book is about Shakespeare, his family, especially his wife and also the plague. This is a book about a pandemic, so if that idea sends you running for the hills right now, you know, go and circle back in a few years when we’re hopefully in a different landscape.
What Maggie O’Farrell does is take the little bit that is historically known about Shakespeare’s wife and family and builds out this whole lush, vivid world. So the key facts are that he married a woman named, well, her name is Agnes in the book, and in the author’s note she tells you why. And he has three children. A daughter named Susanna, and then twins, Judith and Hamnet. And it is known that Hamnet dies in 1596 when he was 11 years old and not that long after, Shakespeare writes a play called Hamlet. In that day and time, Hamlet and Hamnet are basically the same name.
So she puts Agnes in her stage, and she makes her a woman who will arouse the reader’s sympathies immediately. You like her. You empathize with her. You want good things for her. She’s living with a horrible stepmother in her brother’s home, and she falls in love with the Latin tutor who is Shakespeare, who is interestingly never mentioned by name in the book. He’s present, but the story isn’t about him. But he’s always referred to as somebody’s father, somebody’s son, somebody’s husband.
So they fall in love. Their families don’t want them to marry, but they work it out. Her relationship with the rest of the townspeople, the townspeople are almost afraid of her because she has an interesting relationship with animals. She’s a healer. She knows that things are going to happen. She has some kind of sight, and the way O’Farrell writes it, it’s believable. It’s not quite magical, but it’s not quite magical either. She has these babies. She loves them, Hamnet and Judith have this precious relationship, and something they like to do is fool other people and parents by switching roles. The boy for the girl and the girl for the boy which is something you see in Shakespere’s plays all the times, so that’s kinda fun.
So what I like about this for you is she takes this family that you knew existed ‘cause you learned in history class and you’ve read about it a little bit, and she places them squarely … Not just in the midst of, but experiencing this pandemic because in this book, Hamnet dies of the plague, which is not historically known. At the very beginning of the book he and his sister are ill, and then she circles you back through the family’s history and you see how they met and fell in love and how they marry. There are good times and there are hard times, and what they did about them, and his writing is only in the background until the final pages of the book.
Agnes is such a fascinating character, and seeing the way she brings their dearly life in the 1590s to life is fascinating. Something else she does so well here is plunge you into a mother’s grief for her child. And I know for a lot of readers, they’ll be like, uh, yeah, that’s not what I want to read about. But for someone who likes a book that can take them away and can make them feel powerful things who likes to be in the hand of a writer who is so skilled at putting words together in a way that is beautiful, taking you to the heart of what really matters in life and making you feel a deep sense of loss, she makes you feel why it mattered.
HANAN: It sounds interesting. I particularly like that in a pandemic environment. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m like … I’m weird like that. Like all of a sudden this pandemic hits and I’m reading all of these like dystopian and books about pandemics and stuff like that, so like I said, I don’t escape from dark places. I escape into dark places. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So that book is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Where are we going to go next? Is it too much to read a novel that involves an unjust incarceration?
ANNE: Talk to me about James Baldwin. Have you read anything by him?
HANAN: Yes, I have.
ANNE: I was thinking about If Beale Street Could Talk.
HANAN: I read that one. [LAUGHS] I loved it.
ANNE: So I’m not so far afield. Have you read anything by Nadia Hashimi?
HANAN: Did she write The Pearl That Broke Its Shell?
HANAN: I read that one. [LAUGHS] I loved it as well.
ANNE: That’s her best known. And you know it’s interesting one came out in 2014 and she’s written so many books since then but none have achieved the reach of the first one.
ANNE: And I don’t really know why that is. She was born in the United States to Afghan parents, and she’s written many books set in Afghanistan. Especially because you see that what you loved about A Thousand Splendid Suns was the way that he portrayed the bonds of sisterhood, I’m wondering about her more recent release A House Without Windows.
So this came out, I think about five years ago. It is a story of a powerful sisterhood relationship set among the world of Afghan women. When one woman is accused of murdering her husband, she’s sent to an Afghan women’s prison unlike any world she’s lived in before. She was used to being at home as a shy mother in a world where women were sheltered, so now she’s in a completely different communal environment and an attorney is sent to represent her and help her. And it draws her into a different world, and also reveals a story that is surprising to the reader.
You would know from The Pearl that Broke its Shell, Hashimi is also really good at taking her readers on an emotional journey where like you feel like you’re in good hands because she’s writing with confidence, but you do not want realize where you’re going until she shows you all of a sudden. How does that sound?
HANAN: That sounds really good. I really want to read that.
ANNE: So that A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi. Okay one of the books you loved is Scarlet Letter and it really has me wondering if we should go back in time.
HANAN: I’m always down to go back in time. Like I said, old soul. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Okay. Have you ever read anything by E. M. Forster?
ANNE: The book that I’m always inclined to recommend although I would say you should definitely watch the movie instead or at least first is A Room With A View. But you know, that has a happy ending. Howards End has a sad one. I think it might be fun to go in that direction. So if you want to read to escape, into other people’s sadness, this one will take you away to an English country house. All the action in Howards End unfolds among three families whose lives interact in very surprising and unexpected ways. But you have three families. You have the wealthy sisters who are very liberal and progressive minded. You have an industrial family that are rather smug, sure minded about what they believe who ought to be doing what, which actually reminds of The Scarlet Letter. And then you have a poor family.
Over the course of the story their lives get tangled in deeper and deeper ways. As the characters all speak to make the most of their situations, to find the most happiness that they can at their different societal levels because something you see is that everyone is trapped. The Schlegel sisters are trapped by what’s expected of them. The Basts are trapped by their poverty. The Wilcoxes can’t see anything in a point of view that is out of line with what they have been raised to believe is right, which sounds good and yet it’s a kind of prison for all of them. And so as they seek their happiness, they ultimately only seek to undermine it.
One of the quotes that E. M. Forster is best known for in his writing is, “only connect.” When you look at Howards End with that lens, you can only see oh, how they’re trying. These characters are trying to form meaningful relationships with each other and to find love and it just … So much of it just goes badly. [HANAN LAUGHS] For someone who obviously has some deep set affection for your high school English classes, you could go to town with the symbolism for like the country house and the community and everybody’s roles in it.
HANAN: I loved writing high school essays. I don’t know why everybody else didn’t like it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: If you want a happier E. M. Forster novel, A Room With A View came out just a couple years before this one and it is about another young woman who is engaged to be married to a really uptight guy. I mean, she has a secure social position. Her family has enough money and enough, you know, societal clout. He’s picked Lucy because she’s going to play the role he needs to be filled in his life. And then she goes to Italy and falls in love with somebody really unconventional and possibly wrong for her and really improbable. And she has to come back home to England and figure some things out, which she does and it’s delightful. Although I think the movie might be better.
HANAN: [LAUGHS] Usually for movies I’ll go towards the happy endings stuff, so maybe I’ll watch the movie.
ANNE: Interesting. Sad books and happy movies. All right. In that case, read Howards End, watch A Room With A View. I hope you enjoy them both for very different reasons. Hanans, let’s look at what we talked about today. We discussed Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, A House With No Windows by Nayda Hasimi and Howards End by E. M. Forster. Of those books, what do you think you’ll pick up next?
HANAN: I think I’m going to start with A House Without Windows. When I was reading the Goodreads, somebody was comparing her writing to Khaled Hosseini and so I think that I’m definitely going to start there.
ANNE: Sounds good to me. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
HANAN: Thank you so much for having me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Hanan, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/233 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can keep up with Hanan’s reading life on her beautiful instagram @hanansbookshelf. That’s at H-A-N-A-N-S, hanansbookshelf.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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♥ The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
♥ A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
♥ Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
▵ You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero
● You Are A Badass At Making Money: Master the Mindset of Wealth by Jen Sincero
● I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell
● This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell
● Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
● Hamlet by William Shakespeare
● If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
● The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
● A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi
● A Room With A View by E. M. Forster
● Howards End by E. M. Forster
● A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
What do YOU think Hanan should read next?