Prav’s Picks

Pravin pic 1Pravin Wilkins is a playwright, poet, fiction writer & educator from San Diego, California. From performing spoken word poetry at #NoDAPL fundraisers to putting up an award-winning play (#takebackgraffitihall) in support of UC San Diego protests against the closure of the University Art Gallery to his more current work surrounding NFL player protests against police brutality and systemic racism, his writing consistently engages with race & class struggle (as well as the many intersections between). He is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, where he received his MFA in Dramatic Writing. He plans to spend much of his time as a City Books Writer-in-Residence returning to a novel he began as an undergraduate honors thesis project, titled “Burning in the Melting Pot.” He is thrilled to be a part of Pittsburgh’s literary & creative communities. All profits from the sale of Prav’s Picks through the following Bookshop links will be donated to the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh, except where noted.

1. tender, a literary anthology and book of spells: evidence, by various artists, edited by Deesha Philyaw & Vanessa German

tender, a compilation of short works by Black women authors in the Pittsburgh area, is described in its introduction as “a balm made for ourselves, that we now share with you.” As a community, while we continue the work of unpacking, understanding, and dismantling the systems that oppress Black folks (and specifically Black women) in Pittsburgh & across the country, we must also hold up and celebrate works that exemplify the persistent and profound acts of healing that Black people perform every single day in their minds, homes, and communities. tender offers a fascinating formal journey between personal narrative, photograph, poetry, and visual art that invites the reader into these sometimes painful, always empowering moments. (Profits benefit 1Hood.)

2. M. by Christian St. Croix

M., a collection of short prose & poetry pieces told from a queer Black perspective, eases in the reader through its apparent straight-forwardness, but ultimately challenges one to build context through small snippets of life and love—to visualize a whole after seeing every ridge of every little piece of a gorgeous mosaic. The narration is hilariously candid and often sexually charged—reading M. feels like reading a hundred delightfully witty Facebook posts from a very forthright friend. (Sidenote: Christian St. Croix is an amazing up-and-coming playwright—keep a lookout for his name)

3. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

Easily #1 on my list of “books they should have taught us in high school.” In this
unapologetically-narrated autobiography, THE revolutionary of our era sets the record straight on her time as a Black Panther and freedom fighter. Using poetry that she had written over the course of her life as the emotional moorings for her story, Shakur crafts a modern American masterpiece that should be on every single person’s home bookshelf. I’m serious. This is essential reading that the government would prefer we never touched—they don’t like when we learn from and celebrate stories of the revolutionaries who beat them, whom they couldn’t manage to destroy.

4. Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton

Like Assata, this is another essential work from an often-demonized Black revolutionary. What stands out about this piece as an autobiographical work is Newton’s exceptional ability to introspect, to admit fault, to step back from his personal investments and present a thoughtful rumination on his life & the formation of the Black Panthers. Newton also provides detailed global and historical contextualization for his revolutionary ideology. The philosophical concept proposed in the title and clarified in the narrative truly does transcend his own story, and provides a blueprint—and a warning—for all who seek revolutionary change.

5. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis

The relationship between Black music and resistance is documented exceptionally well in this book. Davis holds up an academic lens to an artistic movement, and the result is an illuminating journey through history and expression. A hint for those who purchase this book: listen to the music it references as you read; if you have trouble listening to music while reading, take breaks in between to play these songs. Even if you know them, I feel this is the best way to really pick up what Davis is putting down—not just in your mind, but in your body as well.

6. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

Unaccompanied is a harrowing and unforgettable collection of poems told from the perspective of a young Salvadoran asylum seeker. Through visceral imagery and multilingual poetics— through a non-chronoligical whirlwind-exploration of memory, family, and place—Zamora humanizes people that we in the U.S. have been told are “aliens.” This collection of poems is the sort that you could read 20 times and still have more to learn from another read-through.

7. They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

In this non-fiction book, Lowery places a journalistic lens upon the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. Facts and research reign supreme in this piece, but it stands out in the pantheon of journalism in its willingness to suggest action based on these facts. While some sticklers might say “oh, well that isn’t what journalism is about!” I would suggest that the best journalism sheds the faulty assumption that we as members of this society are capable of commenting objectively on any social movements. In my view, this book represents the best of reporting: a fact-based analysis that does not attempt to keep the issues it covers at arm’s length.

8. Nonviolence Ain’t What it Used to Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance by Shon Meckfessel

This is an indispensable book for this current moment, in which we are seeing—in the wake of the protests against police murder & systemic racism that swept the nation after video footage was released of Officer Derek Chauvin’s brutal murder of George Floyd—the re-emergence of arguments surrounding the concepts of non-violence vs. violence as tactics of resistance. Through an academic analysis of the Occupy Protests, the early Black Lives Matter protests, and other social movements of the last decade, Meckfessel engages directly with important conversations of the present day. He offers very thorough critiques and arguments on questions like “what is the difference between a riot and a protest?”, “do riots work?”, and “what is more valuable, life or property?”

9. Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson

A classic play, and the first piece in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, Gem of the Ocean provides a window into the history of the now-gentrified Hill District. This riveting journey through truth and myth (and the emotional truth of myth) demonstrates that conflict between oppressive police & the Black community is really nothing new. Set over a hundred years ago, this story is one that resonates to this day.

10. Drug War Capitalism by Dawn Paley

One of the most thoroughly-researched books I have ever read, this nonfiction exploration of the decades-long War on Drugs presents a horrifying story of bipartisanship regarding the U.S. goal to control, through force, the economies of Latin American nations. Administrations have come and gone, Democrats have replaced Republicans who have replaced Democrats, but all have contributed to this horrifying blend of Monroe-Doctrine politics and “containment” interventionism. The War on Drugs is often analyzed by American scholars only through its (albeit extremely detrimental) effects on people of color—and specifically Black people—within U.S. borders; in Drug War Capitalism, Paley provides a crucial global perspective on this subject.

11. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid, in his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, utilizes a satirical “how-to” format and a second-person narrative structure to critique the outcome of people’s arguably misguided obsession with obtaining material wealth. Far from a one-size-fits-all manual for getting rich (quite the opposite, actually), Hamid’s novel tells the very occasionally triumphant, quite often tragic story of what happens to a person who gets sucked into a modern Gatsbyan pursuit of a materialistic dream, set in an incredibly dynamic “rising Asia.”

12. The End of Policing by Alex Vitale

This book sheds light on the radicalism of the status quo. While “defunding the police” is often portrayed in American media as a radical perspective, Vitale presents a counter-argument: that the truly radical perspective is assuming policing can effectively maintain through violence a racist-capitalist system that is simply not working for most people—including most white people. The question at the heart of this nonfiction book is this: in a nation where we are imprisoning more people than anywhere else on Earth, how can we shift our solutions to crime from control-oriented to community-oriented?

13. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This is my favorite novel of all time. A masterpiece of South Asian literature, The God of Small Things is a tragedy that decries the injustices of the caste system in India. The morals presented, and the beauty celebrated, in this novel transcend the borders of my mother’s home country. This is a story for all of us.

14. Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

Yes, of course Angela Davis appears twice on this list! She’s only, like, my greatest personal idol. Anyways, in Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis poses a question (and provides an answer) to one of the most appalling problems of modern-day America: our ridiculously high prison population. Since every politician in the country seems to have an opinion on this issue but none of them want to talk about the facts, let’s tune out all those clowns and buy this book so we can listen to what Mama Angela has to teach us.

15. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

This book is an excellent journalistic look at the erosion of the Fourth Amendment in post-Patriot Act America. The same way we typically look at the War on Drugs as a domestic and not a global issue, we often analyze the War on Terror as a global and not a domestic issue. Greenwald explains in detail how the expanded powers of the government during the Bush era—ostensibly as a response to terrorism—have never been reigned in; the government has only continued its overreach into our personal lives, even long after it was clear that the War on Terror was an utter failure. Beyond the fact that our prisons are overflowing, our claims to being the “land of the free” are challenged yet again in this examination of the manufactured consent produced by mass surveillance.

16. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

It was not until I read this book in high school that I realized I had spent my whole childhood applying white standards of beauty to my brown self. In this haunting exploration of how Eurocentric beauty concepts infest the minds of people of color in this country, Morrison implicates all of us in the abuse of Black women in the U.S. This book is a sort of American companion piece to The God of Small Things in that it centers those who have been most exploited, and most often cast aside. It is not easy reading, but it is of utmost importance.

17. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero

This book of poetry oscillates from tenderness to viscerality and back without wasting a second. It will give you emotional whiplash, and that’s a good thing. Guerrero also has a special talent for realizing physical sensation. Her story centers working Latina women who navigate a world so overflowing with sights, smells, and feelings as to be almost fanstastical—the catch is, it is tremendously real.

18. Dark Alliance: the CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion by Gary Webb

This nonfiction book can be seen as a companion piece to Drug War Capitalism. In Dark Alliance, journalist Gary Webb establishes for us the connection between the global War on Drugs and the domestic War on Drugs. The means by which the United States’ global oppression of people of color connects to its local oppression of people of color is illustrated in detail here. This book puts research and facts behind ugly truths that many in the U.S. intuitively understand—and that many others would like to paint as conspiracy.

19. Blakwork by Allison Whittaker

A poetry collection from aboriginal Australian author Allison Whittaker, Blakwork is an odyssey through numerous poetic forms. The whole of the piece can be seen as a dissection of what “Blakwork” means; I took it to represent the exceptional physical, emotional, and psychologial labor demanded of Black populations across the globe, especially within apartheid states. This book reminds us that centuries of colonialism & imperialism spearheaded by Western nations has globalized anti-Blackness, and that dismantling these systems is not just “Black work.”

  1. Where the Rain is Born ~ Writings About Kerala edited by Anita Nair

This collection of poems, essays, short stories, and prose excerpts provides the reader with dozens of different perspectives on the landscape and culture of Kerala, a coastal state in southwestern India. I bought the book in Kochi while visiting a friend of my mother’s; what stood out most to me about this collection was the juxtaposition of viewpoints presented: the visitor vs. the resident; the landed vs. the dispossessed; the literal vs. the fantastical. This collection seeks not to put forth one unifying image of Kerala, but rather, to challenge & complicate its depiction as merely just a “magical” or “exotic” place. Best read to the sound of the rain.

21. World’s End by T.C. Boyle

This sprawling, multi-generational tragedy reads as the ultimate anti-white-savior narrative. T.C. Boyle crafts a brutal, bleak, and honest allegory for the United States’ perpetual shunning of redemption, as the disgraces of our nation’s past flow seamlessly into the present day. Light on heroes, this book reminded me of the film Uncut Gems in that it challenges the idea that a protagonist must be sympathetic in order to be interesting/compelling. The narration is devastatingly witty & the language turns nihilism to poetry.

22. when they call you a terrorist: a black lives matter memoir – by Patrice Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandela

An essential memoir for our times, when they call you a terrorist is the story of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founder of Black Lives Matter & one of the originators of the hashtag that took over the internet. Revolutionary Black women have been at the forefront of every single progressive movement in U.S. history, from Harriet Tubman & Harriet Jacobs to Angela Davis (who writes the foreword to this work) to Patrice Khan-Cullors, and it is vital for us to listen to their stories in their words. Central to the work is the dilemma presented in the title: the way that “terrorist”—not just as a politically charged term, but also as a legally charged bludgeon—has replaced “communist” as a catch-all for people deemed subversive for objectively reasonable positions that our radically anti-Black, anti-poor, anti-human-rights government (and, sadly enough, populace) simply does not want to hear.

23. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

 James Baldwin is, of course, one of the most talented, exceptional, insightful, and—perhaps most of all—bold writers in U.S. history. This book includes two essays that Baldwin originally published through newspapers/magazines in the 1960s: the first (My Dungeon Shook) takes the form of a letter to his nephew; the second (Down at the Cross) is a meditation on the links between Christianity and white supremacy. Both are extremely relevant today, but the second piece in particular struck a cord within me as I re-read it this summer. The way that faith has always played a role in colonialism is something worthy of deep and continuing analysis, especially in a time where church-sponsored mission trips are a still-thriving scheme & the specter of sacredness is being deployed to deny rights to women and the LGBT+ community.

24.  And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

This novel is extremely ambitious in form, shifting radically each chapter in perspective & mode/medium of storytelling. And the Mountains Echoed is a multi-layered, internationalist exploration of the devastating effects of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan—but more than that, it is a celebration of Afghan culture & history. Every American, every “Westerner”—especially those of us who grew up during the era of endless U.S.-sponsored war in the Arab & Muslim nations of Western Asia/North Africa—should seek out perspectives like this one, that come from people we have too-often seen villified on TV by white writers to produce imaginary white heroes. This story presents something closer to the muddled truth of reality: there are heroes & villains of all colors… and children who grow up in the midst of the wars we wage.

25. Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

An insightful (but also, as the title would lead one to believe, HILARIOUS) meditation on race from renowned Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass presents a magic-realist tale centering Furi Wariboko, a Nigerian man who wakes up on the day of a make-or-break job interview to find that, inexplicably…. he is white. Barrett’s style is incredibly unique: he leaves no details unaddressed, spending pages and pages on what other authors might spend single sentences on. This meticulous approach brings the reader so deeply into Furi’s world that we have no choice but to accept its strange reality. Blackass is a truly exceptional work, and should serve as yet another critical reminder to those of us in the U.S. that white supremacy has been globalized, and it takes shape in different ways in every single nation on the planet.

26. There There by Tommy Orange

I included this piece on the recommendation of a former peer, with whom I studied literature at the University of California, San Diego. Chase Boisjolie, a fellow writer & educator, was kind enough to write up a review of the piece, included here:

“Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is an astounding feat that gives voice to the struggles of Indigenous peoples, especially with regard to the confluence of modernity and the struggle to hold on to heritage. Told through the lens of several characters, Orange guides the reader through a tapestry of emotions wherein young people contemplate the importance of identity, older generations seek to reconcile what was with what is, and fissures within the Indigenous community at large are tested. Presented as it is, There There reads almost as a collection of short stories, while concurrently weaving a tight narrative. Orange does not shy away from history, and unabashedly uses the backdrop of colonialism to propel this story with hauntingly poetic retellings of atrocities committed over centuries of occupation. Emotional, energetic, thought-provoking, and at times uncomfortable, There There is a must read work of own voices literature.” – Chase Boisjolie (learn about his current project here)

27. Syzygy, Beauty by T. Fleischmann

This prose poetry collection is an equal-parts cerebral and sensuous journey through love, longing, identity, gender, and the effervescence of solace. I return to it often, flipping to a random page and reading it through, as the poems read just as powerful out of context as they do within. This piece honestly defies my description, so I’m hoping my sincere recommendation will suffice.

 28. Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

Whereas was recommended to me by one of my most cherished mentors, playwright & TV writer Anna Moench, who described the collection as “mindbending.” After I created the original Prav’s Picks booklist, I realized that my own knowledge of modern literature by people from Indigenous tribes (& of Indigenous heritage) in North America was entirely too sparse. I am seeking to rectify that, and this is one collection that particularly caught my eye. Find a more detailed review of the piece here.

29. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A spiritual successor to James Baldwin’s My Dungeon Shook (one of the essays included in The Fire Next Time), this piece also takes the form of a letter from one Black man to his younger kin—this time, a son instead of a nephew. This form turns complex issues like systemic racism & institutional anti-Blackness into deeply personal, historically-contextualized ruminations & pieces of advice. Coates’ knowledge of Black & African American history—and his ability to decipher & convey meaning from that knowledge—is unparalleled.

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