Text: Iris Rosendaal
Photo: Weera Koopman
On a breezy, cold afternoon I have a cup of coffee with Mafalda Araújo (25): master student in Sociology, poet, and co-writer of a children’s book named The World’s Drawers – A Book to Disorganize Ideas (Original in Portuguese: As Gavetas do Mundo – Um Livro para Desarrumar Ideaias). Just before we start the interview she grabs my arm and says: “Wait, wait! Just to be clear, this list is not a top-5 list or something like that. Ranking makes me nervous. I hate it,” she laughs. “I would rather invite you to understand that I am telling a story through these books.”
1. The Age of Revolution 1789 – 1848 (1962) – Eric Hobsbawn.
At the time of reading this book, Mafalda still studied International Relations in Porto, Portugal. This book, however, inspired her to switch to sociology. She says: “While reading this book, I realised that I don’t want to occupy myself with abstract concepts, such as nations, countries or wars. Instead, I recognised that my focus should be on the history of those lives that were actually affected by these power relations. So that really inspired me a lot to study sociology, and particularly collectives and how they take shape.”
First published in 1962, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote The Age of Revolution (1789 – 1848), which is the first of a trilogy of books on modernisation and the 19th and 20th century. The book takes an economic and social perspective on the history of revolutions, with a focus on The French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. “This is one of my favourite books and has shaped my sociological thinking and perspective. I discovered that history is crucial in understanding the present and that certain public issues are transcendent. Also this book is written beautifully, it is a piece of literature of its own. It tells a story, which is a skill I think sociologists and historians must have.”
2. Winter Journal (2012) – Paul Auster
In Winter Journal, Paul Auster retells his biography from his memories of bodily processes: feelings, scars, accidents, appetites, and passions. Mafalda explains, “He makes very clear that his identity is a result of all these micro processes. For example, he tells his story through all the places and houses where his body has been. I think it is such an interesting way to tell a story, since it underlines how we are always subject to change and that the idea of a fixed self is something to be contested.”
Winter Journal has encouraged her to question the limits of control. She says: “This book makes you more comprehensive of the forces that have shaped your identity. But it encourages you to discover what invisibilities have formed the other as well. In that sense, this book allowed me to accept that you cannot control everything in this process of identity formation.”
Mafalda read this novel when she was thinking about switching to sociology. Winter Journal helped her to find some comfort in these difficult times. She describes that: “I was in a time in which I was feeling like this carriage that split from the rest of the train and got stuck and lost, while the rest of the train was moving forward. This book helped me to realise that not every one is moving in the same speed.”
3. Undoing Gender (2004) – Judith Butler.
“In Undoing Gender, Butler invites us to think of people as texts that need interpretation”, Mafalda says with a smile.
“I read this book in a time in which I was questioning which part of the individual was socially constructed and what part was biologically inherent. She disorganised the way that I positioned myself in this debate. Moreover, this book concerns me as both a woman and a feminist, and helped me to think about gender, sexuality, and intersectionality.”
Indeed, Butler reflects on the construction and interpretation of gender and sexuality. She focuses on how norms govern gender and sexuality, and how these norms create dominant conceptions of personhood. Since gender is something that is actively (re)produced all the time, ‘undoing’ gender then implies undoing these dominant conceptions of personhood, and to question how they can become conceivable. Additionally, this book tells us, according to Mafalda, how our bodies are in constant dialogue with larger conceptions of gender and sexuality. But it also tells us how language is incapable of grasping the totality of human experience.
Moreover, this book inspired Mafalda in writing her first children’s book The World’s Drawers – A Book to Disorganize Ideas. She says: “Like Undoing Gender, this book does not provide final answers. We try to encourage the young readers to always question and investigate the narratives presented to them, to be reflexive, and to find out why things are the way they are and whether we can make up new rules.”
4. Selected Poems 1950 -2012 (2012) – Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012) was an American essayist, poet, and feminist. She made discussions of race, gender, and class prominent in the poetical discourse. Mafalda, who is in the process of writing her first poetry volume, considers Rich as one of her favourite poets. “I find it inspiring how she translates politics into art. Moreover, she has a very unique writing style, the poems are well structured, and they are graphically pleasing. Her poems can be read as maps where the placement of the words conveys a particular meaning. My favourite poems in this bundle are Cartographies of Silence and Planetarium. Like Judith Butler does in Undoing Gender, Rich explores the limits of language. In Cartographies of Silence, she writes: ‘language cannot do everything’, and thereby reflects on social issues in a poetic way. Her poems could be read as micro forms of activism.”
The works of Adrienne Rich first occurred to Mafalda during her undergraduate study. She says, “I read this bundle in a time in which my interest in sociology was growing. Politically active friends of mine who studied literature recommended me this book. At that time, we were very engaged in and vocal about feminism. Adrienne Rich is a very inspiring figure for me in terms of her character, her work, her academic work, and how she translates political concerns and social awareness into art. To me it made sense because I love science, sociology, and literature. I think it is a good mix because art has the possibility of mobilising the visual and emotional. I actually use Selected Poems a lot for my essays.”
5. My Brilliant Friend (2012) – Elena Ferrante
The last book Mafalda shows me is the first of a four-part series named Neopolitan Novels, written by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Interestingly, the writer’s identity is unknown, since ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym. “So the writer could be a man as well. If that is the case, he did a magnificent job in understanding womanhood”.
She goes on, “I am a very slow reader, but I managed to finish the complete series this summer. The truth was, I was feeling very emotionally impoverished, because I did not have time to read literature in the past academic year. These novels are written in such a powerful and visual writing style. Through four novels, Elena Ferrante tells the life story of a woman, named Elena Greco, from childhood till death. It is a story about coming of age, but also about ageing. The story is narrated through the experience of womanhood and life in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. Through the story of her brilliant friend, the book explores the different paths that are possible for women in that specific context of time and space.”
Although this novel-series can be categorised as literature, Mafalda asserts that there is a sociological relevance in them. “From an intersectional lens, this book explores the role of women in public and what it means to be a woman in a certain space and time. Additionally, like Bourdieu, the main character Elena Greco recognises that was not equipped the codes to express herself in a way that could please the elite middle class. In that way, the novels reflect the dichotomy between the old (proletarian) left and the new (bourgeoisie) left. Novels can be extremely powerful in conveying something that sociologists might spend a life time to do!”