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 it’s 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 friend’s 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.
"Aw hell naw," she said. I nodded. I could see how that might not speak to everybody.
When it came time to name ourselves, we did joke about all the Terry McMillans and Zanes and all the other authors we don’t read, but that was mostly hyberbole. There's a legitimate, not to be disparaged place for commercial fiction. It’s just that as a group, we were hungry for something else. We're no super-high-falutin, intellectual snobs; we're just busy sisters short on time. What engages us is this notion that you've gotta know what's going on in the world around you. We’ve all got husbands and kids and careers constantly pulling on us. So if we’re going to sit down with a book, it ought to gift us with a deeper understanding of the world, so we can better figure out how we fit in it.
And sometimes that means making room for a little levity. After King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Central Africa and a steady diet of rage and colonialism in Africa, we decided to add some fiction to our titles because we needed the psychic break. After all, there is more than one way that a book can teach you about a place. To this day, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency remains a group favorite. Later, we even added movies like the one about the pregnant teenager who becomes a drug mule, Maria Full of Grace (with popcorn)!
We read Reading Lolita in Tehran and tried to invite the author, but she kept having to cancel. Since then, we've had Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones (who we only scored because founding member Marcia is his close friend) to talk about All Aunt Hagar's Children, when we were into authors from the Diaspora, and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, another Pulitzer winner, to talk about Cuba and his book, Last Dance In Havana, We have no juice, but we're thinking of trying to invite Salman Rushdie to our next meeting (we're into India now—maybe he'll be intrigued).
Seven years in though, we occasionally go a little longer than our 6-8 weeks before meeting, but we're still strong. Our children have grown up knowing that we've created this space where books are important and we protect it, even from them. Only half a dozen of us showed up at the meeting for China Pop and fewer than half of us had read it. But that was cool; Sojourners is always a "whosover will let him come" kind of place.
And if you show up like me, unread, hungry and having forgotten the requisite bottle of wine, that's OK, too. You can still leave full of fellowship and with subtly expanded notions about the world around you.
Lonnae O’Neal Parker is a Washington Post writer and the author of I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work. She is working on a book of essays about Michelle Obama.