A Reading List for Thanksgiving

Photo: Stacy Spensley/Flickr

Thanksgiving feels especially fraught this year. The stakes of the perfect holiday are high; better to abandon them altogether. Why does the intimacy of family breed conflict? I wish I had suggestions for battling the anxiety many of us are feeling around the table this year. As for me, I will try my hardest to speak truth if ignorance comes to a head, even if I am afraid. I will stay safe—my support systems at the ready, my journal and Klonipin in my bag, and my phone fully charged.

None of the following stories were written in 2016, but the themes of our contemporary American Thanksgiving traditions—family, identity, history—remain relevant.

1. “Native Intelligence.” (Charles C. Mann, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005)

I learned more about 17th-century-era encounters betwixt Native Americans and the English from this essay than from 13 years of public school and four years of liberal arts education.

2. “Making a Place at the Table for Grief on Thanksgiving.” (Saeed Jones, BuzzFeed LGBT, November 2013)

Beautiful recollections from writers on the varied ways they mourn and remember their loved ones during Thanksgiving. Here’s an excerpt from Bo McGuire’s entry, one of my favorites:

I don’t say, “This is a whole altar we’re setting up for saints that ain’t even here — saints that now live everywhere.” I don’t say, “These are gravel roads we drag out every year to run ourselves ragged on all the way from New York City to Alabama and back.” Mama responds with the agony of the oldest, “We can’t do that. What would my brothers and sisters do?”The agony of the only — I’m the only one who can make the biscuits that get crumbled into something close to nothing in order to make the thickness of the dressing. Nanny always said Mama played with her dough too much. When Nanny died, I was determined to learn biscuits without anyone to teach me. And I did. It was magic. It still is. I fold the dough. I break the bread. I cry the whole damn time.

3. “Sherman Alexie: Thanksgiving is a Story of Survival.” (Sarah Mirk, Bitch, November 2014)

Author Sherman Alexie on the power of chosen family, not going home again, and the American mythology of Turkey Day.

4. “Korean Thanksgiving.” (Mary H.K. Choi, Aeon, November 2015)

Picnic blankets on the cemetery ground, a family that drives you nuts, dates (the fruit, not the paramour), and a phone with a 6% charge—lucky for us, it’s Mary H.K. Choi in this scenario, and she delivers her observations with dry wit and dark honesty.

5. “The Interloper.” (Kashana Cauley, Catapult, November 2015)

The sociopolitical implications of that most delicious of desserts, the sweet potato pie:

Given the choice between bland pumpkin and sweet potato, which, when roasted for a long time at a low temperature, gives off butter and brown sugar notes, I’m not sure why anyone would choose the former. But, of course, food preferences aren’t always simply a matter of taste. Sweet potato pie has been thoroughly regionalized and racialized into a fringe food. The internet coughs up endless references to sweet potato pie as a southern dessert and plenty more as a slave dessert. Americans don’t typically like being reminded of slavery.

6. “The Problem with Being Palestinian on Thanksgiving.” (Zaina Arafat, BuzzFeed News, November 2013)

The author’s Pan-Arabic holiday tradition—Club Thanksgiving, where music blasts, friends catch up, and the food isn’t served until late,” a hybridized holiday, one that lasted the duration of an evening”—is wrenched apart as “the situation” in the Middle East (especially Syria) worsens. Zaina Arafat discusses how global politics—which, to her and her family and friends, are local politics—test and transform their relationships.