They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Fair point. I would like to add that you shouldn’t judge a book by its title either. When I was generously offered the opportunity to read a new book due to published by Jaded Ibis Press in April 2022, and heard that it was called The Benefits of Eating White Folks, I was instantly intrigued. I was expecting dystopian science fiction, or perhaps political horror, but got something entirely different.
The Benefits of Eating White Folks by Leslie T. Grover, PhD is a kaleidoscopic text. It contains narrative sections, poetry, and illustrations. Together its facets tell a complex story in which white people die from a mysterious sickness which does not appear to affect black people. An interesting, maybe even provocative premise.
But to summarize the book in this one sentence does not do it justice. The sickness and its effect on communities is what ties the book together, but the sickness’s destructive and chaotic nature also acts as a metaphor for the socio-political issues it discusses. The resulting text is confrontational, harrowing, and does not offer straightforward answers. Instead, it invites critical thinking and reflection.
Saying that I liked or enjoyed this book therefore feels inappropriate. This is not a book that aims to please or entertain. It has, however, made me think. Watching the news over the past few years I was often struck by the fact that the covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement were occurring simultaneously at this same point in history. The two seemed, somehow, connected. But as a white European person I didn’t feel that I was properly equipped to articulate that connection.
The website of Assisi House, a social justice organisation co-founded by Grover, states that “racism is a public health issue that needs collective action”. To what extent The Benefits of Eating White Folks was written as a fictional reflection on this statement is not for me to say. Given Grover’s certification in Narrative Medicine, however, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to read the book as a continuation of her activist practice.
Those reading the text expecting answers or solutions may find themselves disappointed. This is not a historical novel presenting slavery and segregation as problems of the past. Nor does it paint an optimistic picture of a brighter future. Instead the text reads as a transhistorical allegory which shows how the deeply problematic attitudes that shaped the history it depicts continue to shape the present. The sickness, if you will, still rages on.
But the text’s mysterious sickness is not a one-dimensional metaphor for racism. Without wanting to give too much of its content away, I was also struck by how the story draws connections between racism and health. Health is, in fiction as in real life, a privilege. Watching the news, it’s easy to see how the pandemic has made health inequalities across the globe more visible and has, in many cases, made them even worse. The Benefits of Eating White Folks deconstructs these exploitative mechanisms in great and often graphic detail.
I normally try to end book reviews with a nice and tidy conclusion. This book resists such tidiness. I will say, however, that I’m still pondering the many questions it keeps asking me days after I finished reading it. This, to me, is one of the characteristics of a truly good book.
I would not recommend this book to people who like their reading relaxing and easygoing. Nothing wrong with that, but The Benefits of Eating White Folks just isn’t a relaxing and easygoing book. But those who like to be challenged, both by ideas and by the reading experience itself, will find much to explore and to reflect on, long after finishing its final page.