A Reading List For When You Need To "Laugh Hard & Feel Human Again"

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.
Rachel Long recalls reading Warsan Shire's Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth for the first time and the moment she fell in love with poetry: "I was like, what, you can write this? She's writing this! She's writing her, me, us with such honesty. She's saying all the ugly things and from her hand it is beautiful."
Since then, Rachel has been shortlisted for Young People's Laureate for London and runs poetry workshops at the University of Oxford, Poetry School and the Serpentine Galleries. In 2015, she founded Octavia – "a poetry collective for women of colour" – in response to the lack of inclusivity and representation in literature and academia. Based at the Southbank Centre, Rachel describes the collective’s meetings as a special occasion. "We come together to read beyond the canon, write ourselves on our own terms, and catch the hell up over cake – meeting and writing poetry together, in our own space, on our own terms is a celebration after all."
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Seeking new reads for the new year, we visited Rachel in Oxfordshire at the Tudor cottage she calls home. Read on to find out what she prescribes for when you need to "laugh hard and feel human again" and "feel smart, sassy and redefine what love can be".
Who taught you to read?
I can't remember...a collaborative effort I think between a few teaching assistants, my childminder and my dad. My mum worked nights the whole time we were growing up so my dad did all of our homework. I remember bullying him to write inflated comments in my reading diary: "Rachel read excellently" when I hadn't. He'd nod off during our spelling tests too without fail, every night. We'd make him say silly things in his sleep, help ourselves to biscuits and watch inappropriate TV until he jolted awake and said, "That's enough". Every night.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
When and where do you read?
At home. In my bedroom chair. Or on my bed. Not in it. Not unless it's 'bedtime'. And on the train. I'm on trains a lot.
What are you reading right now?
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop by Josh Cohen, which is a fascinating read about work and time. A particular gift to writers, artists, freelancers – all who go against the grain of 'normal' notions of work and time, and who are perhaps made to feel that we are not utilising it correctly.
And just yesterday I finished Tishani Doshi's Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods which is a collection of ornate and powerful poems.
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When did your love of poetry start?
In an Apples and Snakes Writing Room workshop with the legendary dub poet, Jean 'Binta' Breeze, at The Albany in Deptford. I'd not long come out of a creative writing degree but in her mouth I finally heard how alive poetry could be.
Who/what got you hooked?
The money, mostly, and the accessibility. Jokes. Apples and Snakes, The Writing Room, Jean 'Binta' Breeze for all the reasons aforementioned; the permission and licence from Warsan Shire's Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Jacob Sam-La Rose for his saintly level of nurture, patience, wisdom and expertise; The Arvon Foundation, for providing writing utopias; Jack Underwood for teaching me that one can learn the most about poetry in a pub, and Caroline Bird, a true lover of poetry and the best teacher, reader and editor I know.
Can you name three contemporary poets we ought to know?
I'm a great believer of we know what we know when we know it. Or, in this case, we read what we read when we get around to finally reading it... So poets I love hard and would highly recommend are Claudia Rankine, Patricia Smith, Momtaza Mehri, Richard Scott, Sharon Olds and Selima Hill. Can I have one novelist too, for luck? One so brilliant she begins my bookcase: Elaine Castillo.
Do you have a favourite poem for the new year?
No, not really. But the first poem I read in 2019 was Tishani Doshi's Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, which is a rally and a reckoning. A call out, and a call to arms. It gave me goosebumps reading it to my sister on New Year’s Eve.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Where do you buy your books?
Foyles Waterloo Station mostly, dashing to or from an Octavia meeting at Southbank Centre.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Brick Lane Bookshop is beautifully curated. The poetry selection is way ahead of most mainstreams. And Blackwell's in Oxford for pure scholarly glamour.
Is there a book you’ve read more than once?
The Railway Children and The Secret Garden. I used to re-read books so much more as a younger reader. Perhaps there is something lost in that I now move on to the next book and the next rather than stay with one and re-read it so many times I can memorise whole chapters. I do miss standing still with a book, loving it so much it looks like my mum's Bible.
How do you choose what to read next?
Recommendations mostly. Elaine Castillo has not led me wrong yet. Likewise, through Octavia – being part of a collective of readers means you're never short of recommendations. Also, my partner is a great experimenter, which is rare I think. He'll buy a book 'to see' if he'll like it, rather than because he's almost certain he'll love it as it's so-and-so and you've loved all their other work. I admire that, his gems often become my next reads. Poetry Twitter can also be a great guide for what to read next.
Sometimes I'll get poetry-full and need to read a novel, or if I've read a few novels in a row I'll read a collection of hilarious essays, for example. Something to jolt me out of the last novel's universe.
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How do you organise your bookshelves?
It goes: novels, short stories, poetry, essays and nonfiction, children's books and graphic novels, art, and mine and my partner's publications – he’s also a poet. Some sections are upright, some lie on their sides. I can't imagine not having some sort of order. It would be chaos!
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
What three books would you recommend to a stranger?
It depends on the stranger but if they needed to laugh hard and feel human again then Samantha Irby's We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. If they needed to feel smart, sassy and redefine what love can be: Hera Lindsay Bird's Hera Lindsay Bird. If they've lost someone: Sharon Olds' Stag's Leap. For all of the above: Richard Scott's Soho.
What’s your favourite biography?
Eek. I don't think I've ever read a biography. I think I tried to read Charlie Chaplin's once when I was about 10 but the words were too big. I was obsessed with Charlie Chaplin.
What book would you give as a gift?
Depends on the recipient but Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Soho, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life and The Collected Poems of James Baldwin have all been personally gifted a number of times. Oh, and What a Time to be Alone by Chidera Eggerue – gifted Christmas just gone to a sister who is a few years younger than me and is fighting to feel enough.
Rachel’s Reading List
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop by Josh Cohen
Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Soho by Richard Scott
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin
Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin
What a Time to be Alone: The Slumflower's Guide to Why You Are Already Enough by Chidera Eggerue
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