A Year in Reading: Nadia Owusu

December 15, 2020 | 15 books mentioned 1 5 min read

In the beginning, there was snow. An Airbnb upstate with a fireplace, a hot tub, and an extensive collection of classical music CDs. My partner and I brought prosecco to toast 2020—a better year, we hoped.

I brought a new notebook and a folder full of research for the novel I was about to begin drafting. My partner, a jazz musician, brought his tenor saxophone. He was eager for uninterrupted time to practice and compose. For me, the Airbnb provided the perfect reading environment. Nowhere to go, lyric-less music, warmth. I brought seven books for seven days. Too many, but better safe than sorry. I finished three: Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, and Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis. All three were books that had long been on my TBR list and I admired them as much as I’d hoped.

In February, we flew to Isla Holbox, Mexico for a week. We had decided to take time off in the early part of the year because we expected the coming months to be busy with work travel. My partner was launching an album. I was scheduled to launch my first book—a memoir—in the summer. I also work full-time at a nonprofit and we were about to launch a new initiative—a partnership with local governments across the United States focused on closing racial income and wealth gaps. Coronavirus was in the news, but it didn’t, at the time, seem too concerning. How wrong we were about that.

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On the beach, I was enthralled by Feast Days by Ian MacKenzie, both for the ways MacKenzie weaves ideas—about class, race, inequality, and Capitalism—into a propulsive story, and for the way he brings the city of São Paulo to life on the page. I studied urban policy and planning in graduate school before studying writing, and I aim to combine those passions. Staying with the theme of inequality, I also read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s powerful and illuminating Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. For the year, I had resolved to read a poem every morning, so I read from several stunning collections: Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridien, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, and Tyree Daye’s River Hymns.

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We flew home, and for a couple of delusional weeks, we carried on as usual. I commuted to and from my Midtown office. My agent and I met with my publishing team. We talked about conferences and touring. My partner played live shows. The news was alarming, though, and in between panic scrolling, I distracted myself with some of The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg. Short stories help when I have anxiety because I can read each one slowly and still feel the satisfaction of finishing something. As the terrible spring unfurled, I also read and loved story collections by Jamel Brinkley (A Lucky Man), Justin Taylor (Flings), and Toni Cade Bambara (Gorilla, My Love).

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When my world shrunk to the size of Bed Stuy and the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods, I wandered about, masked and bewildered, but somewhat comforted by audiobooks. It wasn’t that the stories themselves were comforting, but listening to audiobooks returns me to my childhood bed, my father reading to me from his rocking chair. Some of my favorites this year were Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Lynn Steger Strong’s Want, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, Shayla Lawson’s This is Major, and The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

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In April and May, a day shy of exactly a month apart, my beloved maternal grandparents died of COVID. They were unable to have visitors in the hospital. I was unable to travel to Massachusetts. We have still not held a service. There was disaster all around me and in my heart. I remembered James Baldwin’s words, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” This year, I read about disasters and survival: Emmanuel Carrère’s Lives Other Than My Own, Tola Rotimi Abraham’s Black Sunday, Wayétu Moore’s The Dragons, the Giant, the Women, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans, and Sketchstasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Each moved and instructed me and pushed me to imagine new possibilities for how we can all care for each other better.

My book launch was postponed to January 2021, but amidst all the uncertainty and upheaval, many writers whose work I admire—some of them friends—launched books. On Zoom and Crowdcast, I watched them read and discuss their work. Those events and the books they celebrated were something to look forward to.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor is now one of my favorite books. It is both tender and sharp. And, in that its protagonist is a gay Black PhD student at a predominantly white institution, Real Life brought to mind Toni Morrison’s words: “I stood at the edge and claimed it as central.” As COVID disproportionately killed Black, Native, and Latinx people, and as the police continued to kill Black people with impunity, I thought a lot this year about acts of claiming and reclaiming, about how necessary they are.

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I have done much raving on social media and in group chats about so many 2020 books I loved: Quotients by Tracy O’Neill, Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson, Luster by Raven Leilani, His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie, Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, Lakewood by Megan Giddings, A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Barker House by David Moloney, Shiner by Amy Jo Burns, Three-Fifths by John Vercher, Home Baked by Alia Volz, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker, Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt.

Writing about my year in reading confirms to me that this year has both flown by and been interminable. I finished more books than I manage most years because, for much of the year, there weren’t any dinners out. There weren’t any trips to museums or to the Jazz Standard or the New York Philharmonic. There was no work travel. I have often said that books save me, but this year, I mean it more fiercely.

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The year is not over. Currently, I am reading The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. It is a book about righting wrongs, about correcting official records. If anyone were to ask me for recommendations of books for America’s new leaders to read before they are sworn in, this collection would be on my list. Evans is brilliant.

Speaking of the future, my autumn reading has thrust me into it. I received advance copies of three titles. All three have some connection to Ghana, where my baby nephew recently started walking. I am homesick for my family there, and uncertain about when I will be able to visit again. But, for now, there is WhatsApp, and there are books.

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Open Water by British-Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson is a profound novel about Black art, love, and survival. The anthology Accra Noir edited by Nana-Ama Danquah captures the hustle of several distinctive neighborhoods of Ghana’s capital. And, The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E. McKinley is another bold act of reclaiming. Here, in photographs and lyrical prose, McKinley defies Western stereotypes about African women.

From my perch in the literary future, I have hope for 2021. I have prosecco in the fridge.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. Simon and Schuster will publish her first book, Aftershocks: A Memoir, in January 2021. Her lyric essay chapbook, So Devilish a Fire won the Atlas Review chapbook contest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, the Washington Post’s the Lily, Orion,The Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Catapult, Bon Appétit, Epiphany and others. She is the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award.

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