It's Lit: Naomi Shimada's Reading List

Photographed by Ana Cuba.
Welcome to It's Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who's reading what.
You don’t have to finish reading every book you start, says Naomi Shimada, who likes to read several books at once. “The moment I realised that was so refreshing. We all have such a limited amount of time to read that, actually, if you’re not feeling the book, it’s OK to put it away.”
The model and spokesperson for issues affecting women's body image is certainly time-precious; when she’s not brightening up your Instagram feed with her technicolour travels, she’s telling stories and making documentaries with Page She, an inclusive female film and photography collective.
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Shimada is currently working on the outline for her first book, which she tells me will be “based on group conversations with women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds.” Each chapter will tackle a different topic, including discussions around grief and heartbreak. She explains: “Being able to have honest, frank conversations might not give us all the answers but at least talking about things makes us feel better.”
We caught up with her at her London home for a frank, honest conversation about books in this month’s It’s Lit.
Photographed by Ana Cuba.
Photographed by Ana Cuba.
What are you reading right now?
I’m a problematic reader in the sense that I’m always reading a few books at once. I’m researching a bunch of things and studying so I have a lot of reading to do at the moment. I’m doing a James Baldwin course, so I’m reading a bunch of his books: Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time. Also Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Kathleen Collins’ book of stories, Whatever Happened To Interracial Love? And I just finished The Power by Naomi Alderman, which I literally inhaled. I haven’t read that fast in ages.
When did you start reading?
I read a lot as a kid and then I stopped reading for years. I was living out of a suitcase for a long time and I had nowhere to live for two years after a big break-up. I was so nomadic that having books in my life was a luxury because they take up space and you need to have a home for them.
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Where and when do you like to read?
I see people reading on the Tube and can’t understand how they don’t miss their stop! I can’t listen to music and read at the same time, and the background noise of people on the Tube is too distracting. My favourite place to read is on holiday, but otherwise I read in bed. This chair [above] is great for the reading I have to do for school. I never went to university so I’m reading all these academic papers for the first time and I’m thinking: 'What the fuck are you talking about?' Most of what they have to say could be said in one paragraph instead of 10 pages. All this knowledge could be shared but because it’s written about in this way, it’s confined to academic studies. I’d really like to study more but I find that element excruciatingly painful.
What are you studying?
Earlier in the year I studied race, gender and sexuality in media and now I’m doing visual anthropology, ethnography and ethics. I do really love reading but I have to be in the right headspace to process and absorb all the information and put my own spin on it. I have a studio up the road and I have books delivered there every day.
Where do you order your books from?
A&B books, or sometimes Amazon. I’m a Prime member. Sometimes I just need it the next day, you know? [Laughs] I still love going to bookshops too.
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Photographed by Ana Cuba.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
There’s a cute little one in Clapton called Pages of Hackney that I like but it’s more when I travel that I look for them. There are more indie bookshops than ever.
How do you choose what to read next?
Mostly through my own research – I definitely look for books based on things I’m going through. I’m always looking for answers, inspiration, different things to try. If you look at my books you’d think I was having a nervous breakdown [laughs]. I hate the term 'self-help' but I do love books about personal growth. My problem is that so many of those books have terrible titles. You don’t want to be seen reading them in public, do you? For example, this book, The Wounded Woman. It’s all about the connections we have to our fathers and how that affects the woman we are today. It’s so interesting and explains so much about who we are but it’s called The Wounded Woman!
Do you belong to a book club?
No, I don’t. I have been thinking about starting one but it’d have to be very laid-back. Like every three months or something. Like no pressure, read it when you can… but I also think that it’s fine for reading to be private, you know? We’ll see, I’m open to it. We’ll call it the Laissez-Faire Girls’ Book Club.
Which book would you give as a gift?
bell hooks’ All About Love. It puts into words a lot of what I felt about love. Not just in terms of romantic relationships but also love as an entity, love as an experience and love as an exchange. She’s just bible. The way her brain works is unlike any other. So I always feel like it’s an honour to read her work.
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Which magazines are you faithful to?
I just got the new issue of gal-dem and Violet magazine, which I think is really nice. When I travel I pick up The Atlantic, TIME, National Geographic and The New Yorker. They’re good for the plane journey and are also a good reading alternative when you get to your destination. Plus, I feel like they summarise all the things I’ve been reading headlines about. I also sometimes buy cooking magazines [laughs], Apartamento and Teen Vogue. My friend just launched this zine called Maroon World which is all about people of colour and is really fashion-forward. I read fashion magazines less and less though.
Photographed by Ana Cuba.
Do you prefer fact or fiction?
I still love getting lost in novels but I think with all the research I’m doing and the answers I’m looking for, it feels like I have a lot of fact to catch up on. But I think fiction will always be a part of my life. I really got into reading Audre Lorde this year, and bell hooks. For the last year or so that I’ve been buying books, again I’ve been focusing on books a) by women and b) by women of colour. I’ve definitely been trying to practise that.
Which books have you identified with most?
I’m reading a lot about the mixed race experience at the moment. Obviously there’s lots of books written by white women, and black women, but the in-between experience is less written about. We’re not a new generation; there’s more mixed race people than ever before but I think that it’s a very specific experience. I feel like sometimes we categorise each other depending on where we’re from and people don’t always realise how loaded those questions can be. Sometimes those things are really painful, or not…but there’s often a lot of history there and it can be hard to explain. Where I’m from and where I grew up is a very complicated answer and only now in my adult life am I realising how exhausted I am by explaining my existence to people. It’s a really particular kind of identity that I’ve grown up with so I’ve been reading a lot about kids that have grown up like me.
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Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan was really good. That girl is such a good writer and she’s so young too. I think she’s Japanese-Chinese-American-British, which is a very similar background to mine. It was really nice to read a voice that was similar to my experience growing up. I also love this book, Part Asian. It’s just a book of portraits of people that are half-Asian with their thoughts on their identity. After I left Japan I was always the half-Asian kid but because of the way I look people always assume that I’m Latina. I think I read about other people’s experiences to see how I feel about my own background, to give it context.
Photographed by Ana Cuba.
The book I’ve identified with most, though, is this one: What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People – you can see how much I’ve highlighted!
Wow – just the whole page! So you’re not precious over your books, then?
Actually, this – making notes, highlighting pages – makes them precious to me in a different way.
What do you use as a bookmark?
I fold over pages, is that really bad? Or I press flowers in them.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
It’s all about a balance so I would give Women Who Run With the Wolves – it’s one that I keep by my bed and keep going back to but I’ve never read it in one go. The stories are really beautiful and it’s always nice to pick up again. Another genre I love is food books. So I would give Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential because I love him and because he’s such a babe! And All About Love by bell hooks.
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Photographed by Ana Cuba.
Naomi’s Reading List
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Whatever Happened To Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Wounded Woman by Linda Schierse Leonard
All About Love by bell hooks
A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Part Asian by Kip Fulbeck
What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People by Pearl Fuyo Gaskins
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
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