For this week's How to Make a Reader, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Bezi Yohannes. Bezi is a graduate student at Georgetown University, where she’s finishing her second degree in English Literature. After pursuing her love for fantasy fiction and studying medieval legends at the University of Oxford, she decided to focus on the ways that black female fantasy protagonists intervene in Eurocentric genre tropes. When she’s not reading for her thesis, she’s watching natural hair Youtube tutorials or spending too much money at Target. She currently lives in northern Virginia, and she aspires to work in publishing in New York.

I'd been following Bezi's bookstagram account @beingabookwyrm for at least a year when I discovered that she's currently completing the same graduate program I attended at Georgetown University. While I had already been a fan of Bezi's reading recommendations, I felt an immediate connection with her upon knowing she was walking the same campus and taking classes with the same professors who I'd loved so much. My bookstagram and blog actually came out of that program, so it's been super fun to learn how Bezi is molding her graduate studies to her own unique tastes and career aspirations. Bezi's account is a must-follow at any time, but this is a great week to discover her account for yourself because she's currently featuring Ethiopian and Ethiopian American authors in honor of the release of The Shadow King (a book that's VERY high on my own TBR list). You can follow her account as well as her hashtags #HabeshaReads and #ReadEthiopian to learn more. Once you fall in love with Bezi and her books, be sure to check out more of her reviews on the Reading Women podcast and blog, where she serves as a contributor. For now, keep reading to find out how Bezi developed her love of fantasy and the essential advice she's preaching to all English teachers!

Tell us about your current reading life. What types of books do you enjoy and where do you have conversations about books?

Since I’m finishing up grad school and writing my thesis, my “for fun” reading life is regularly encroached by my academic reading life. I don’t really count how many books I read, but judging from my list of eBook purchases and my past year of posts on bookstagram I’d say maybe 110-120, not including the books I read for school. But there’s definitely an overlap because my graduate concentration is black girl protagonists in fantasy, and that’s the subgenre I most enjoy reading!

My bookstagram has become my safe space to talk about books and authors I love, but again I also spend a lot of time talking about books at school (as a teacher and a student).     

As a teacher, I’m always curious about how people fell in love with reading. For you, was it in the classroom, or outside it?

For the most part, it was outside the classroom. My mom tells me that before I really knew how to read, I used to stop and try to sound out every single word we saw, from cereal boxes in the store, to street signs, to manhole covers. But one of my earliest memories of realizing I loved reading was hearing my uncle read The Chronicles of Narnia aloud in my living room when I was seven. I knew I didn’t just love letters and words, like we were learning in school, but the worlds and experiences that stories create.

How did you figure out your personal taste in books? 

I figured out that I loved fantasy generally from friends, and bookstore employees actually! Growing up I spent almost every Saturday afternoon in Borders - RIP :’( - literally sitting on the floor in the shelves of the young adult section, with piles of books that I’d grabbed from the shelves. Because I came so often, the Borders employees would walk by and add books to my piles that they knew I’d like. I liked “buddy reading” with friends (one of my favorite ones was our eighth grade impromptu book club for the Percy Jackson series), and I also definitely picked up new authors by browsing the shelves at the school library. I actually didn’t start enjoying contemporary and literary fiction until very recently.

Did you do your required reading in high school? Did you read outside of assigned reading in high school? If so, what were some of your favorite books and how did you discover them?

I did most of it, but honestly I was never a classics girl, and a lot of the (white and/or male) authors felt pedantic and redundant after a while. I did the most required reading in the classes that had truly diverse syllabi with authors of color, although I didn’t necessarily make that connection at the time.

As for the rest of the question, does it count as “outside of school” if I brought books to class to read under the table? :) Anyway, like I said before, I discovered my love for fantasy by spending hours and hours perusing the shelves of bookstores and libraries; some of my favorites that I found that way were A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and the So You Want to be a Wizard series by Diane Duane.

Did you have a teacher in your life who helped you learn something new about yourself as a reader or appreciate books in a new way? 

My eleventh grade AP English teacher, Mrs. Poquis, helped me learn how to actually analyze writing, breaking down sentences and paragraphs to understand their construction, and to be able to replicate good writing. Although I had already written and published a novel, I gained a deeper appreciation for books once I realized how deliberate, and how hard, the craft of writing was.

In college, I realized that my passion for authors who represented my identity could -- and should -- shape my reading life after taking a class on African-American women writers with Professor Spencer. Because of her I realized that the tradition of black feminist literature was not only a valid concentration, but truly rigorous and rich, despite the not-so-implicit bias of the white canon that I had been taught.

What is one assigned book you LOVED reading in high school? 

The only assigned books I remember enjoying in high school were Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, the latter of which I’ve seen all over bookstagram recently. I don’t think I still have my copy of Warmth of Other Suns, which is a shame, because I remember I had so many annotations of questions and passages that intrigued me. It was the first time I actually read about the Great Migration (beyond just hearing the term), and one of the first times I had read a thorough narrative focusing on black lives in America that didn’t just talk about slavery/black suffering. (On an unrelated side note: I really wish I had read Beloved or any Toni Morrison in high school, like I know many other high schools do, but I didn’t read her for a class until college.)

What is one assigned book you HATED reading in high school? 

Honestly, looking at a “most common high school readings” list, I realize I resented most of the books that I read from that list. Hemingway, Dickens, Steinbeck …. You get the idea. But particularly, Heart of Darkness can take a long walk off a short pier, for reasons that in 2019 (not that 2010 had any excuse) should be self-evident.

Now that I’m looking at this list though, I actually remember being intrigued by the idea of Lord of the Flies after I read it, even though I definitely didn’t like the characters or even the story itself, which explains why I’ve enjoyed other, more self-aware takes on that premise  -- Netflix’s “The Society” being one of the most recent examples that comes to mind.

What is one book you would love to see introduced in classrooms now? In your opinion, why is this book important for teenagers to read?

Definitely Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison. That book radically reframes the white mainstream literary canon in ways that are so necessary, and I truly believe it should be introduced as early as junior year of high school. It’ll inspire hard, but important, conversations about the ways language and literature reflects and perpetuates implicit biases. I’m actually teaching right now; I lead a writing course for first-generation college freshmen, and I wish they had read this book before they get to me.

What is one additional piece of advice you would give teachers to help their students enjoy their reading more?

Decolonize!!! Your!!! Syllabus!!! To start thinking about what that means (if you haven’t already), read Yvette DeChavez’s article in the LA Times and her interview explaining that article in more detail. Here’s a couple great quotes from the interview: “I think it [decolonizing academia] requires a process of unlearning, rethinking, and listening to BIPOCs as they try to explain why things feel so unwelcoming and hostile. I think faculty and administration are in a position of power, which means it’s up to them to do the work of making themselves better, of holding themselves accountable … I’m not calling for people to sprinkle in more works by indigenous and POC writers; I’m calling for them to make these voices the dominant ones in their classroom.”

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading Slay by Brittney Morris, Diamond City by Francesca Flores (out in January!), and The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. (All but The Shadow King are fantasy, unsurprisingly.)

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