When Muslim fashion blogger Hoda Katebi was told by a US TV host in February that she didn't "sound like an American", her shrewd response – "that's because I've read" – made her an overnight viral sensation and spawned everything from GIFs and cross-stitches to hashtags.
Far from intending to sound snobbish or patronising, the 23-year-old Iranian-American was hammering home the importance of looking beyond the overly simplistic narratives we're often fed, whether they're about Muslim women, slavery, the legacy of imperialism and colonisation, or anything that sounds just a little too simple and clear-cut to be true.
Following the interview, the University of Chicago graduate, who studied the relationship between gender, resistance, feminism and the state in Iran, was inundated with requests for book recommendations and rather than publishing a simple reading list, she decided to launch an inclusive, internet-based radical book club. The smartly named club, Because We've Read, was born.
The club's aim, Katebi wrote in April, is for readers to "raise [their] collective awareness and understanding of politics, race, gender, religion, culture, history, colonialism, class etc, in ways that disrupt normative narratives." The group also wants to bring the voices of marginalised communities to the fore and make people more aware of their place in the world.
Three months on and Because We've Read is thriving. They've explored race, gender, and other aspects of identity, colonialism, marginalisation and more, studying Assata Shakur’s autobiography Assata: An Autobiography in April, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in May, and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights by Omar Barghouti. This month they're reading Orientalism by Edward Said, Katebi's "first intellectual crush". Next on the to-read list, Katebi told us, are the works of Angela Davis, Arundhati Roy, Michelle Alexander, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and more.
"I pick texts mostly based on what I've read that has been personally meaningful," Katebi told Refinery29 UK. "Those that centre, uplift, and celebrate the struggle and resistance of people of colour internationally, those that have been banned by various governments, and books recommended and requested by our readers on individuals or areas of the world whose voices are systematically erased from our educations." A list of recommended accompanying articles, films and excerpts is also released at the same time as the book announcement via the club's newsletter.
She also ensures that all books are available online as PDFs, as well as working with publishers to provide discounts and free copies of books to send to people around the world who have expressed financial need. The books are then discussed on Instagram Live at the end of the month with different guests and members being able to take part (these will all be uploaded as a podcast, launching in August). IRL group discussions are also encouraged and have already taken place in almost 30 cities around the world, from Nairobi to Tehran to London.
#becuaseweveread is taking @carly.slay.jepsen down intellectual memory lane right now! Who else read Edward Said in university? 🙋🏾🙋🏽♂️ Repost: "Had to pull this out of my college textbook hoard for @becauseweveread #becauseweveread - this month is Covering Islam and the introduction of Orientalism by Edward Said. What are you reading?"
A radical book club like hers is needed in 2018, Katebi says, because while the current US administration is "particularly atrocious and particularly dependent on feeding blatant lies to the media," young people everywhere have long been ignorant of their "true histories". "In classrooms we fly through the few and dotted mentions of slavery, sugar-coat the genocide of indigenous people, and replace America and much of the West's long history of global destruction and exploitation with words like 'freedom' and 'democracy'.
"This book club is necessary because it is doing what our institutions have systematically failed to do: educate us on reality." The goal, Katebi continued, is to "challenge world views and the way that we understand ourselves and our place in it "by reading and uplifting the voices and narratives of radical people of colour who have resisted, transformed societies, and have been systematically silenced or banned from America and other nations globally."
The club is calling on others to "join the conversation, help make radical books more available and accessible, uplift and celebrate the voices of resistance that have been banned and erased from our history books, and challenge the way you think," Katebi added. "In the words of Assata Shakur, 'No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free'."