What to Read When You Want to Think about Survival

By

I’ve thought a lot about survival over the last five years or so. All that thinking led to writing, but I didn’t realize that I was thinking and writing about survival for an embarrassingly long time. (Self-reflection can be so hard.) Instead, I said I was writing about trauma or childhood abuse or grief or mental illness. What I assumed were disparate essays were always connected, at first loosely and later tightly, by the theme of survival. I circled round and round trying to understand what it means to survive in our hauntingly beautiful and brutal world.

I wanted to know how to make it through the hard things that chip away at us or even shatter us entirely. To figure out what to do after, if we are one of the lucky ones who have an after. To find a way to move forward, even if you stumble, fall, and lose ground. To grapple with how what we want to get over might never be over. To realize how what tries to break us also shapes us in unpredictable ways. To recognize that sometimes the best we can do is make it through one day, and then the next. To find that survival is an undeniable part of us and of the stories we tell about ourselves. To learn that our stories don’t have to center on trauma or avoid it; the stories instead can rest somewhere in between. Telling stories about myself, over and over, helped me realize that what I survived might have made me but it doesn’t have to define me. I now know that survival is a damn miracle. We should treat it as such.

To think about survival, I read books that weren’t necessarily about survival and survivors, but in which survival was a thread I couldn’t help but notice and follow. Books have long been my salvation, and they definitely were as I wrote about some of the hardest moments of my life. Books saved me again and again and again. They will continue to do so. But books about how we survive helped me patch some of those raw, jagged places that I hadn’t managed to fix on my own.

Below is an incomplete list of those books that sit together in a place of honor on my bookshelves. May they offer you everything they offered me.

***

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
There’s a whole class of books that I describe as books that changed my life. (I don’t exaggerate here, and their number is small.) Lorde’s Sister Outsider is one of these life-changing books. It’s a book that contains essays and speeches that explore how sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and heterosexism impacted her life and the lives of others. Her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” made me stop and pay attention as I covered the margins with notes. Lorde takes up the issue of our silences and their toll. After surviving cancer, she comes to realize that her regrets are not about what she didn’t necessarily do but about what she didn’t say. While we might think our silences will keep us safe, they don’t. “Your silence will not protect you,” she writes. Instead, we should say the things we need to say, especially about ourselves. Otherwise, they consume us from the inside. To speak our truths is to become visible and to make visible what we’ve survived.

 

salt. by Nayyirah Waheed
This collection of poems was one that I wasn’t looking for but found me anyway. (Don’t you love when that happens?) These often-short poems cover subjects like history, race, and trauma and how they affect our experiences of the world. Waheed writes about how the color of one’s skin can make one unsafe, particularly for Black people, and about the difficulty of surviving when the odds are not in your favor. She writes of Africa and the beauty of Blackness. And, she writes about what we survive and how we heal from the events and people that have broken us. Yet, Waheed does something remarkable here: she advocates for staying soft in a brutal world that maims and rends and attempts to swallow us whole. Hardening your heart to the suffering that comes with being alive is not our only option. Remaining vulnerable and soft should be our aim; we should wear our precious vulnerability to others to see. In poem after poem, she writes of accepting ourselves and speaking those truths that make us who we are. That is the path to healing—it just takes time.

 

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson
While Maggie Nelson is usually known for her poetry, The Red Parts is a work of creative nonfiction about the murder of her aunt and the long-term fallout of the death of her own father. It’s a book about how a home can be filled with fear and dread, how the burden of our own safety is placed solely on the shoulders of women, and how Americans obsess over sexual violence, particularly when it involves young white women. It’s also a book about how death, especially the violent and unexpected ones, linger. Nelson writes about how such deaths can put us in stasis or rupture everything into a before and an after, forever changing us into people we never wanted to be. It’s also a book about bearing witness to death and cruelty. It’s a book about how some wrongs can never be made right, even as we try to make them so, and how some acts can never make sense because they are senseless.

 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
This was a tough choice for me—I could have just as easily picked Gay’s Hunger, which knocked me to the ground but also helped me get back up on my feet. Bad Feminist might seem like a strange choice because, at first glance, it might not seem to be about survival. But, y’all, feminism is a form of struggle and survival in a world that remains hostile to women. Feminism is not only about how we make it through the day but also about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and of our lives. There’s one essay that continues to stand out to me and that I think about often, “What We Hunger For,” which is about the Hunger Games series. Like Gay, I was drawn to the violent and oh-so-bleak universe of these books: After the apocalypse, child tributes from each district fight and kill one another. The butchery, of course, is televised. I couldn’t take my eyes away from Katniss, who survives one horrible trauma after another. I can’t help but love heroines that survive some shit because I survived some shit, too. Gay importantly shows that survival doesn’t always equal strength, and that trauma doesn’t simply get better. It can “take everything to endure.”

 

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
Cottom, recently named a MacArthur Genius, is a public scholar and sociologist and essayist. Everything I read by her changes how I think about and interpret the world, and I find myself coming back to her writing again and again. Thick is no different. In a gorgeous and engaging way, Cottom makes the reader think about who gets to be competent, who gets to be seen, who gets to be a victim, and who gets to survive a world not made for them. She centers Black women and Black girls, who receive messages about how they have to “fix their feet,” bend to cultural expectations and structural oppression, rather than all of us fixing the world for them. Survival is not meant for all of us; some of us appear more worthy to be saved. Cottom shows the raced and gendered aspects of survival and documents the cultural and social constraints placed on Black women. They shouldn’t have to fix their feet. We should change the world. It’s an open question as to whether we will.

 

Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio
This is another one of those books that turned up just when I happened to need it. My partner heard an interview with Leslie Jamison on NPR, in which she recommended Loitering, and he told me that “it might be something that I would like.” It was. These meandering essays encourage you to stand still for a moment, to wait because you need to know what will happen next. D’Ambrosio writes of Hell Houses and Mary K. Letourneau, suicide and loss, the importance of stories, and how we manage to survive. His essays about his father and his family are the ones that drew me in; I know what it is like to have a wounded parent and how those wounds get passed on. I know what it is like to share those wounds, how they become red, angry scars, evidence of the hurt and harm caused. I know what it is like to be lost and worry you’ll never be found. But, oh, D’Ambrosio explaining how he told himself stories of his survival so that he would actually survive blew my mind. I didn’t realize that other people did this too until I read Loitering. I didn’t recognize how telling myself I would survive could help ensure that I did.

 

Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the County in Between by Jeff Sharlet
This collection of beautiful, haunting essays was one that helped me realize that I wanted to be an essayist and not just an academic writer. I have a PhD in religious studies, which is not the straightest path to becoming a literary writer. But Sharlet writes about belief and religion as well as trauma and loss. More than that, he writes about how Americans try to make sense of their lives and the suffering they endure, and how we try to find something meaningful in the chaos that often surrounds us. There are expected and unexpected losses that we all encounter that show us that what we thought was possible isn’t. A loss is not only a loss of something or someone important but also of the future we’d imagined for ourselves. Sweet Heaven When I Die is about the struggle of being human, what we survive, and how we manage, sometimes against all odds, to heal.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Based on Strayed’s Dear Sugar column written for The Rumpus, this is a collection of the advice that she gave to all those folks that wrote in for help with their problems. Unlike other advice columnists, Strayed doesn’t simply offer pat solutions. Instead, she draws from her own life experiences—the beautiful ones and the ugly ones—to show that we aren’t alone in our struggles. We’re struggling alongside one another. This book makes an appearance in my own new book more than once, more than twice. I have a tattoo of a partial quote from the book, “be brave enough,” on my forearm. Strayed’s injunction to “be brave enough to break your own heart” has guided me over the years. We will break our own hearts. Other people will break them, too. But we must brave enough to know ourselves and what we need to make it through this life. Yes, we’ll fail and fumble. Yes, we’ll hurt other people. Yes, we are only human. And to be human is to suffer. Suffering is unavoidable, and some sufferings are going to stick with us because they are unexplainable and awful and sad. If we look at them too closely, we can’t move on. But, Strayed points out that we’re never alone in our struggles. Isn’t that what we all need to hear?

 

And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Kelly’s new essay collection, Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, out now from Blue Crow Publishing! – Ed.

Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness by Kelly J. Baker
When Kelly J. Baker was two years old, her mother fled Baker’s abusive father. But then a custody arrangement left Baker behind for much of her childhood, the new target of his violence. Out of this traumatic childhood Baker patched together a new life. From the trailer park to college and on to a doctoral program, she succeeded against all odds. But the pain of her childhood trauma didn’t abate—it only burrowed deeper. These stark, haunting essays are not about brokenness, but rather about the slow realization by the author of what she survived and how she grew stronger from a place of vulnerability. Final Girl reckons with what it means to be shattered by those you love and trust and what it takes to pick up the pieces and forge ahead. Baker tackles family trauma, parental abuse, grief, and her own mental illness with striking honesty and grace. By facing the moments she would rather forget, she shows us how survival is just the beginning: we mend ourselves and surround ourselves with love—and then we rise.


Kelly J. Baker is a writer with a religious studies PhD. She’s written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Chronicle Vitae, Religion & Politics, Killing the Buddha, and the Washington Post, among others. She's the author of Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces and Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Academia. Her newest book is Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, out in November 2020 from Blue Crow Books. More from this author →