So Isabel Wilkerson was on interviewed at(on?) the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and she was great … no surprise there.
Here’s what was a surprise though: each time the interviewer asked her question about Caste, I knew precisely what she was going to say: names, dates, atrocities – popping into life as if I was still reading the book. I don’t think I remember any work (fiction or non-fiction) having such a profound effect on me.
The interview carried on, and Helen and me were swapping messages (she was up in Wales, visiting her parents) while we watched it, and she said she was experiencing the same thing too: she knew Wilkerson’s answers before she said them out loud.
I said, ‘You’re read the book already? That was bloody quick!’
Sshe hadn’t, but since I followed her around the house for a week, throwing out facts and anecdotes, she kind of felt as though she had.
Still, even if you’re annoying significant other has repeated the whole book to you, it’s still worth picking up and reading it for yourself. Wilkerson is an extraordinary writer, and if you’re interested in creative non-fiction, Caste is the best example of this genre I’ve seen in a long time.
Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across a book that will change your perspective on everything: everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve heard, everything that’s happened before, everything that’s happening now, everything that’ll happen in the future. Once in a lifetime, you’ll come across a book that doesn’t tell you about something you haven’t already seen, or experienced, or at the very least suspected, but puts into a context that’s like a massive strobe light firing off inside your head.
Once in a lifetime, you’ll finish a book that compels you to sit in a dark room for a few hours with a bottle of something strong and NWA playing on a loop, just to make sure you have fully understood what you’ve just read.
For me, Caste is that book.
Being black, I’ve experienced a fair share of overt racism over the years: more than some, certainly a lot less than others, probably an average amount now I think on it; so when a book or article comes along that explores racism, then I’ll take a look (know your enemy and all that). The thing is, Wilkerson isn’t actually talking about racism, she’s talking about caste: a system deliberately created to elevate one group of people while keeping a knee on the neck of another, usually by ascribing an imaginary inferiority of the subordinate group through nothing more than a trait they were born with and cannot change (the colour of their skin, their parentage, their sexual orientation). On the surface, this looks a lot like like common-or-garden racism (or homophobia), so Wilkerson dives straight in and explains the difference: