Ep. 211 A Radical Shift with Julie Otsuka

Today we’re speaking with Julie Otsuka, whose nationally-bestselling novel The Swimmers explores what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool. Our conversation covers the art of crafting sentences and finding the right voice. We also discuss the joy of writing in cafes, and the element of surprise.
There are no spoilers on this episode.

The Stacks Book Club selection for April is Doppelgangbanger by Cortney Lamar Charleston. We will discuss the book on April 27th with Nate Marshall.

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Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino

A0C03263-3AE9-4F0F-8046-13CEA93858A3I am lucky to have really smart and interesting friends, and they often share smart and interesting books with me. Thats how Covering found its way into my life. Here is a little more about this book:

Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Racial minorities are pressed to “act white” by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to “play like men” at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.

Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the work of American civil rights law will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. 

At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of covering provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity—a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.

There are books that come into your life and change the way you understand your own identity and place in society. For me, this is one of those books. I have always been familiar with the concepts of passing, code switching, and assimilation, but had never heard of covering until starting this book. Yoshino does a masterful job of articulating the subtleties and nuances of covering. He clearly explains and gives examples to illustrate what it is, how it functions, and why it can be harmful (and at times helpful).

Something that makes this book unique is that Yoshino mixes his own personal stories of covering, both with his identtity as a homosexual and a Japanese American, with case law from his life as a law professor at Yale. We see covering as both something specific to the author and a much bigger part of the national conversation. While this book is focused on American law and experiences, it is easy to see that covering can be universal. While I generally dislike when an author of nonfiction tries to incorporate memoir, I think for the purposes of this book, it really works. The writing is so smart and nuanced, the parallels to his private life and the world of the courts seem well matched.

It is refreshing to watch as someone work through complicated issues of sexuality, race, gender, ableness etc., with a sense of compassion and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking. One particularly wonderful moment comes up during his discussion on the demands of covering as it pertains to women. Yoshino checks his own privilege and lens of maleness, pulling back to note how he may miss covering demands that women face. This self-awareness gave me as a reader an even deeper confidence in his point of view.

The book does lose some of it’s clarity toward the end as Yoshino looks toward the future of civil rights. He gets caught up a little in that vision, and I could have done without a lot of the ending. I understand why he speculated, but I’m not sure it was needed. This book was published in 2006, and so with 12 years of knowledge that Yoshino didn’t have at the time about the United States, some of his predictions felt wildly and naively optimistic (but I again have the luxury of hindsight).

Covering  is not a definitive text on assimilation or discrimination, it is more of a starter kit for anyone interested in understanding the more subtle world of marginalized people and the behaviors they exhibit to get by. While there are times that Yoshino seems to be flexing his massive vocabulary muscle, for the most part this is a straightforward and accessible read. There is a lot to learn from this book. I would suggest it to folks who are interested in human behavior as it pertains to discrimination and civil rights. This is great option, for teenagers going off to college or starting work after high school.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (January 17, 2006)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Covering on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.