A Year in Reading: Anjali Enjeti

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First, a confession: I read fewer books during the first
year of the pandemic than any other time in my reading life. It was easier for
me to catch up on episodes of Shahs of
Sunset than crack open a book. My mind was a sieve, struggling to sift
through language and meaning. Many days, I found myself too spent to glance at
the pile on my nightstand.

In the summer of 2021, when Covid cases declined and my youngest child became eligible for the vaccine, reading slowly seeped its way back into my life. I’m not sure why or how it happened, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I’ve begrudgingly accepted that the way we live now—masks, limited in-person social engagement, limited travel, surges of cases, dwindling hospital beds, continued deaths, anti-science propaganda, and online meetings—is our new normal. This reckoning has helped me cope with pandemic-related anxiety, and in doing so, has paved the way for me to return to pre-pandemic routines, including a regular reading practice.

This past year I read some poetry, some fiction, but mostly
nonfiction. The six dazzling books that conclude my 2021 year of reading
largely reflect this. They have left me inspired, energized, and ready to take
on 2022, no matter what the year may bring.

I hope they do the same for you.  

There are so many more interesting things about perennial Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin than her relationship with her ex-husband, former congressman and convicted sex offender Anthony Weiner. Thankfully, Abedin’s memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, focuses on her childhood in Jeddah and her illustrious career, which began with an internship with the former first lady, and spanned major advisory roles with the two-time presidential candidate and President Obama’s first secretary of state. It’s rare for me to say I can’t put a 500-page book down—but I could not put down Both/And. The daughter of Pakistani and Indian academics, Abedin is a brilliant, talented, and humble public servant, who has been a key player in shaping the past 20-plus years of U.S. policy. She has more than earned this starring role in her own engrossing narrative.

Victoria Chang’s books, whether prose or poetry (her last poetry collection, Obit, was long listed for the National Book Award in 2020) are a master class on short, tight, potent phrases. In Dear Memory, a sentient epistolary book, Chang avoids flowery and dramatic language to unspool an enchanting anthem. If the pandemic had a theme, it would be that time is slippery, that our memories serve as life jackets in an uncertain world, and that our letters to others are really letters to our lonely, broken selves. Here, Chang unspools family archives to tell a deeply provocative tale in an era when we are all relying on our memories now more than ever.

Alison Kinney’s essays about opera for various publications are an art form that matches the breadth and depth of the art itself. Her new book, Avidly Reads: Opera, incisively explores opera as a statement on politics and culture. One contemporary work she examines, Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsberg, tells the story of the two supreme court justices’ bizarre friendship in light of their diametrically opposed interpretations of the law. As Kinney deftly reveals, opera, like all art, is not only a searing comment on a specific socio-political moment, but also a useful tool to expose oppression. “It convenes powerful people and forces them to listen to what’s good for them,” she writes. “But only if they’ve bought tickets.”

Steve Majors is a veteran broadcast journalist who grew up in the rural poor farming town of Batavia, N.Y. He and his family members are Black, but the source of Majors’s confusion as a child derives from his very light skin tone. In his riveting debut memoir, High Yella, he writes, “While I began to learn how to move between worlds on the outside, I still struggled to find my identity within my own family.” As an adult, Majors marries Todd, a white Jewish man, and together they adopt two Black infant girls. The adoption both fortifies and complicates his journey to understand his own origins, his community, and his ideas about what makes a home. Majors is a patient and gracious storyteller who, despite a very difficult childhood, doesn’t shy away from turning a critical eye on himself.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s posthumous short story collection, The Dog of Tithwal, translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, is an ode to his quirky, dark, punchy short stories. Manto, a Muslim from what was then known as Bombay (now Mumbai), was beyond prolific. When he passed away in 1955, at the age of 43, he had completed 20 short story collections. The Dog of Tithwal touches on prostitution, infertility, surprising friendships, and the subject he is most known for—the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent, an event he found to be unnecessary and absurd. This snappy collection is a must-read.

In her collection of essays, Dark Tourist, Hasanthika Sirisena does what I love most as a reader of nonfiction—she challenges, disrupts, and reinvents the form. This astute book knits seemingly disparate events of the personal, political, and cultural persuasion into a cohesive quilt. An insightful storyteller who examines disability, queerness, her Sinhalese roots, as well as “great love under duress,” Sirisena is also a critic at heart who scrupulously dissects political upheaval. Dark Tourist is also a stirring exploration of the self. “I feel like so much of my trajectory—career, cultural, sexual—has been the result not of choice or deliberation but of a series of evasions, near misses, stumbles, and, too, a deep inability to perceive clearly,” she writes. “But I am, after everything, whole.”

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Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account

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Christopher Columbus, the once venerable explorer of the New World, seems to have fallen out of favor. In April of this year, Minneapolis declared the second Monday in October, his signature holiday, as Indigenous People’s Day. His eponymous voyage on the Santa Maria has inspired the irreverent and biting term “Columbused,” to describe white people’s discovery and appropriation of another group’s culture, practice or tradition. And though school textbooks continue to laud Columbus as a hero and credit his bravery, other descriptors like slave trader and murderer have soiled his once impeccable reputation.

His questionable legacy sets the stage for Leila Lalami’s stunning new novel, The Moor’s Account. Like criticism about Columbus, the vibrant testimony of former slave Mustafa al-Zamori underscores the notion that history often dismisses crucial voices, and in doing so, provides only a fraction of the truth.

Mustafa’s birth on a barge crossing a Moroccan river gives rise to his mother’s prophesy that he will someday become a world traveler. Her prediction, though dead on, included no inkling of the brutal forces that would fulfill it. Crippling drought and famine afflicting their hometown of Azemmur force Mustafa, a once wealthy merchant, to sell himself into slavery to save his family. In 1527, his fifth year as a slave, he sails with 600 men from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. In the New World, disease and starvation decimate the crew. Only four survive the first year — Mustafa, his master Andrés Dorantes and two other Castilians. They spend seven more years among the Indians in La Florida, before their rescue.

When Mustafa’s account of the fateful expedition is left out of the official records, he decides to record his memories himself. “I intend to correct the details of the history that was compiled by my companions…But unlike them I was never called to testify to the Spanish Viceroy about our journey among the Indians.” This arresting narrative alternates between his adventures in the Land of the Indians and his life before slavery. As in her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, elegantly unspools the agony of a fractured life, and the psychological and physical costs of a doomed journey.

Lalami artfully conveys the politics and power dynamics of bondage. Despite his own horrific subjugation, Mustafa humbly assumes responsibility for his own role in the suffering of others. When his discovery of gold brings about the torture of four Indians, he observes the devastating consequences. “I had to pretend, like my master, not to hear the cries that had begun to emerge from the storehouse. Within moments, they had turned into howls, so long and so filled with pain that I felt they were echoing in the depths of my own soul.” He later regretfully recalls the time when, as a money-hungry merchant, he traded fellow Moroccans into slavery. “I had sent three men into a life of bondage without pausing to consider my role in this evil.” Rather than dwell in self-pity, anger or bitterness for his own predicament, Mustafa graciously acknowledges his past and present privileges.

Lalami, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics, eloquently examines the subjectivity of narrative, and the creation and manipulation of the truth. Throughout the book, Mustafa comes to understand the power of words, and how intent and motivation shape stories. “I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.” And as the doomed procession traverses the swamps of La Florida, Mustafa considers how language feeds the pride and arrogance of the Spaniards. “So they gave new names to everything around them, as though they were the All-Knowing God in the Garden of Eden.”

Homesickness and regret haunt Mustafa, and Lalami poignantly expresses his ache to reunite with his family. His cerebral account recalls the contemplative, haunting voices of Solomon Northrup in his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, and Sethe of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “Memories of my hometown came to me at odd moments, just like this, when I least expected them, as if my grief liked to ambush me.” And later, when Mustafa senses the awkward relationship between Senior Dorantes and his younger brother Diego, he writes, “Oh, what I would not have given to be with my own brothers…it was my desire to know and my yearning for them that dictated everything I did in those days…” Mustafa’s heartfelt sorrow and palpable anguish fuel his drive to survive.

As does his steadfast belief in God. A devout Muslim forced to convert to Christianity upon enslavement, Mustafa experiences enlightenment of another kind, one where he comes to value diversity in worship and appreciate the many, equally worthy paths to salvation. “Surely it would have been in His power to make us one faith if that had been His wish. Now the idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me.” Mustafa the Moor exhibits a level of sophistication, compassion, and reverence that few of his other companions possess.

Above all else, as a memoirist, Mustafa’s penetrating narrative affords him the power, visibility, and autonomy he lacks as a Moor. He becomes the master of his own story, the notary of his own destiny, and through evocative, exacting language, breaks loose from the shackles of censorship. “Maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of truth.”

And with this magnificent novel, Lalami, through fiction, has penned a revelation and tribute to truth.