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Winter Read-In: The War on Terror Book Club

In the wake of 9/11, a circle of sisters set out to read the world. The wars abroad continue, and so does the smart, black, female fellowship.


As our discussion veered from how the quest for filthy lucre overtook evading communist sensors as an overarching concern for some Chinese filmmakers, to a lament for the folkways that get lost in the name of economic progress in countries around the world, I was again reminded why I love, love, love my Sojourner's Book Club.

Even when I couldn't make the time to read China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture. When I'm just gnoshing on chips without a single insightful thing to add, when I just come to get out of the house, away from the kids, and drink wine with smart, savvy, slightly twisted sisters who sometimes slip into long digressions about family or office politics, I always leave with something to linger in the deep parts of my head.

Perhaps I'm better able to contextualize ongoing conflicts in Central Africa. Maybe its a fuller understanding of how political realities inform Latin American literary traditions. Or why students in the Tiananmen Square uprising so badly miscalculated the lengths the Chinese government would go to quash their rebellion.

But I always leave with expanded notions to go along with my full belly and occasional buzz. And it feels like a full-service Sunday afternoon, with a fellowship that recognizes there is something essential, profound and deeply traditional about black women fashioning their own deliberate, intellectual space.

And, of course, that would be our whole point. After all, there's a reason we once joked that we should call ourselves the "We Don't Read E. Lynn Harris" book club.

The Sojourners were formed in the aftermath of planes crashing into Twin Towers, in the run-up to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was late 2001 and a group of friends and co-workers, mostly colleagues and former colleagues from the Washington Post, were at a cafe for a friends art show. The group was pensive and unsettled. We were about to go to war in a region constantly roiled by bloodshed. "We were talking about how there was a history around that," says Jackie Jones, a life coach and former Post editor, "and how we had a hard time understanding it."

Someone got the idea to have a book club. "And I volunteered to get our first book," Jones says. It was The Arabs, an overview of the history and extant realities of countries in the Middle East, and was patterned after David Lamb's earlier work, The Africans. This was our intro to the region. Other choices helped us drill down.

From the beginning, the idea was this would be a different kind of book club. We were going to start with the Middle East, and with each selection, immerse ourselves in a different part of the world. The Arabs was followed by Palace Walk, as part of the Cairo Trilogy by Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.

Soon, our group of journalists were joined by the NGO contingent. Krista from Oxfam, Rory from World Vision and Vita from Detroit, but coming to us by way of Zimbabwe, and a then-husband who was a Post reporter. Although some women—lawyers, doctors, policy wonks—joined and fell off, we've added to our ranks, though we remain small.

It's not that our membership is exclusive. We're just limited to the kind of women who might plausibly be interested in reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda as their idea of Sunday afternoon entertainment. One of my best girlfriends, Lafayetta, a nurse, once expressed an interest in joining. She asked what we were reading, and I handed her my copy of Thomas Friedman's 500-page tome, From Beirut to Jerusalem.