This year, I sought literature that reverberated with tenderness and rage. Reading afforded me much-needed quietude and pockets of silence in these increasingly fascist times, amidst a relentless, raucous political commentary that we can’t afford to turn off. We can’t afford ignorance, but we do still need spaces to dream, to reimagine the world, to counter erasures of stories we deserve and need to know, the ones omitted from the dominant culture’s record. As writers, we write ourselves and the stories we never saw ourselves in, the stories that are the most terrifying to tell. I craved intimate work that took me to subterranean, secret, otherworldly, historic, ancient, and syncretic corners of literature, where borders and identities dissolved into hybrid forms. I wanted to read work that made me feel connected to my body, my senses, and collective memories.
I Lalla, the utterances of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, translated by poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote, were a portal into another time, when a rebellious woman renounced her family duties to become a devotee—and yet, I read this work in the context of the present-day political turmoil not only in India-occupied Kashmir but throughout India, where student protestors are being violently beaten and tear gassed by the police because of their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will allow the Indian government to send people without paperwork to detention camps. Reading Lal Ded today, each line is as much a wound as it is a balm.
I revisited iconic feminist works that have never felt more prescient, including Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, which interrogates the U.S.-Mexico border: the history of white supremacist imperialism and indigenous genocide, feminist theory, and femme divine mythologies. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive documented the heartbreaking dissolution of a family on a road trip across these desert borderlands, and I ached the entire book through, holding its heart—the children savagely separated from their parents at the border—close to my own. Another spectacular novel set in the desert, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, masterfully weaves a polyphonic tapestry of narrators sharply divided by race, religion, class, desire, and aspirations, unfurling the story of a Moroccan immigrant killed in a hit-and-run. Imagining a Muslim family’s tragedy in the Mojave Desert felt like a necessary complement—one that I’ve never read before—to the post-9/11 literature set in New York City. Lalami’s structure summoned another masterful work of art, Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I loved how both of these novels draw the desertscape, in all of its solitude and endlessness and metaphors. Desertscape forms over millions of years, a steady denuding of the earth into monochromatic wasteland, where everything is wildly alive, but camouflaged, in plain sight.
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments opened a radical door of perception into early 20th-century black women’s intimacy as revolution, how their love and queerness and kinship was the heart of their survivorship against societal and state violence. Femme in Public, a poetry collection by ALOK, a nonbinary transfemme poet, performance artist, educator, and cultural theorist, probes the urgent question that I find myself wondering every time I show up to the page: What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world? Each poem is a dart of truth puncturing the systemic, colonial violence of the gender binary, one of the first ways we learn to erase ourselves.
After Toni Morrison’s passing, I read her collected essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard, each night before bed, unmoored by the breadth and brilliance of her mind. Her nonfiction is a clarion light that has never felt more eternal, and it made me want to read her fictive masterpiece Beloved, for which I made a perfume (for an event in her honor) composed of notes in the book: sweet grass, salt water, rose, and blood cedar. There is no other writer who threads the olfactory with such elegant and devastating precision. Similarly, Arundhati Roy’s collected nonfiction My Seditious Heart reignited my blaze for her intellectual fire and activism and infinitely readable voice—and the collection illuminates her decades-long commitment to freedom and social justice. This work is a nonfictional journey between her two great works of fiction, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House is a heart-wrenching, hybrid work that moved me to my core as a survivor. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no greater feeling of solidarity than being able to bear witness to another survivor’s experience, and in the wake of so many public reckonings with abusers, to read a work that goes inward so inventively was a total wonder. When I think of how I learned to read and write, healing or holding space for trauma were not a part of the writer’s project, but the old rules don’t seem to matter as much to me anymore, we cannot afford to hold our tongues. Fariha Róisìn’s poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost bares and bears everything, and it felt like I’d found a book waiting for me my whole life, a way of seeing that reflects the world as I’ve lived in it, as a Bangladeshi, brown, bodied, Muslim femme person.
Poetry and essay are both forms that Hanif Abdurraquib renders with such elegant melancholy and beautiful rhythm, and I loved his poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, as well as his essay series on the Paris Review, Notes on Pop, about songs and memory. My last book for the year will be published in 2020, My Baby First Birthday, a poetry collection by Jenny Zhang. It’s a radiant and resolute work that had me questioning everything, like what life means when you didn’t ask to be born; how we must translate ourselves for whiteness and patriarchy through our trauma, which can feel like selling ourselves out when we are never replenished by a system that asks us to sacrifice so much. And yet, these poems are a soothsaying for the future we want to live in, where we understand the innate beauty of our planet, of ourselves, our friendships, where we forgive our own transgressions, remembering to stay tilted towards the light.
This year has been a blur of landscape from the window of a bullet train. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, came out in February to critical acclaim and it’s been a whirlwind. Even before the novel’s official entrance, from August 2018 I was one of five debut authors managing the Debutante Ball blog until this fall. I’ve met people all over the country and heard from readers all over the world—it’s been a waking dream. I feel part of a vibrant writing community. Reading is not just a guilty pleasure, but an essential part of being a writer; I’m delighted to have had a chance to read so many books that have thrilled me and inspired me this year.
One of my favorites has been Mira Jacob’s memoir, Good Talk. This funny yet poignant comic-book is brilliant in its scope of tackling racism and identity in America. I’ve reread this one a few times. I loved Soniah Kamal’s debut novel, Unmarriageable, which is Pride and Prejudice retold and set in Pakistan, Jean Kwok’s literary thriller Searching for Sylvie Lee, Grace Talusan’s memoir of being an immigrant in America, The Body Papers, Chelene Knight’s hybrid memoir about all of the places she lived in Vancouver as a child, Dear Current Occupant, Yangsze Choo’s historical novel The Night Tiger, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s speculative and satirical We Cast A Shadow, and Julia Phillips’s debut sparked by the disappearance of two girls, Disappearing Earth.
I’ve loved having the opportunity to support other authors’ works, through debut authors blog and by serving as a contest judge and writing endorsements for books that will be out in the next year, including: Carole Stivers’s sci-fi thriller The Mother Code in the not-too-distant-future America and Jayant Kaikini’s invaluable stories of Mumbai in No Presents Please and of course, Zeyn Joukhadar’s big second novel that combines history, art, mystery and the life of a trans Syrian-American, The Thirty Names of Night.
It was a pleasure to read Anita Felicelli’s surreal legal thriller Chimerica and be in conversation with her this year. I marveled at my colleague Debutante Ball bloggers’ novels—K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, Layne Fargo’s Temper, Martine Fournier Watson’s The Dream Peddler, and Stephanie Jimenez’s They Could Have Named Her Anything—and had a fun evening recently interviewing Stephanie in California. I was honored be a co-editor for a mixed-genre anthology Graffiti that was wholly produced by writers of color.
It was wonderful to read Cinelle Barnes’s second book, a collection of essays, Malaya, and Amanda Goldblatt’s beautiful debut Hard Mouth and Ma Jian’s China Dream. Though each book was vastly different, what drew me in, in each case, was the beautiful use of language.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tope Folarin’s debut novel of immigration and being other in America, A Particular Kind of Black Man, and Mitchell S. Jackson’s memoir Survival Math. I could not put down Jeanine Capo Crucet’s book of essays, My Time Among the Whites, Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novels The Evolution of Love and Running Wild, Casey Cep’s nonfiction book of Harper Lee and the story the Pulitzer Prize winner ultimately didn’t tell, Furious Hours.
I’m slowly reading (so it won’t be over!) Colson Whitehead’s heart-thumping story of reform school in Nickel Boys and Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, a stunning immigration story told in a hybrid epistolary form, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
2019 has been a fantastic year for poetry: loved, loved, loved Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Tina Chang’s Hybrida, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón and Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster. And I loved Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, which casts new light into her seminal long-ago book of poetry, The Country Between Us.
By the time you read this I will have finished reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s POV, The Forest of Enchantments, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s page-turner The Revisioners, Rene Denfeld’s The Butterfly Girl, and Meg Waite Clayton’s novel about the World War II Kindertransport, The Last Train to London.
are eight notable books of poetry publishing in September.
Forage by Rose McLarney
McLarney has been a gifted
storyteller since her first book, The
Always Broken Plates of Mountains, but I dare say that she’s getting even
better, more hypnotic. She’s one of our finest poets of the wild: her notes of
appreciation are grounded in a love of careful cataloging of the world through
language. There are the paired, almost petite lines of “Pet” about a cat: “How
long I watched, how I loved // to watch, and how I tried / to make him a little
home. // But what is wanted wants / to leg it elsewhere, no matter.” Gentle
lines, but the poem ends with a start: “He would slaughter // his way back to
solitude.” McLarney is masterful at those turns—an awareness of how quickly
life can jolt. That range is also present in “And Still I Want to Bring Life
into This World.” The narrator is driving home from a doctor’s appointment,
listening to a radio broadcast—the words reverberating within that small space.
The broadcaster speaks of “failed fields, washed over.” A dying world. The
narrator can’t help but turn the pain inward: “I can think only of the news //
that I may have no children, when there are more / than the world can manage to
keep alive. // Must the answer be only the variety / of grief? If not to envy
all the irrigated orchards bore, // to sorrow for the trees, sprayed and
sterile?” McLarney’s environmental threnodies move from the quick truth—“Wildflowers
tend to themselves // while all people plant these days are satellite
dishes”—to a sense that has been accumulating across all of her books: how do
we hold on to despair, and dust, and memory? A gorgeous book.
Ringer by Rebecca Lehmann
“Elegy for Almost,” a poem
that sits halfway through Lehmann’s collection, took my breath away. “It was as
simple as this: I really wanted you / and then you were gone.” Those first
lines—finely-timed and direct—speak across the page and toward the soul. Throughout
her poems, Lehmann is well-paced, creative, and constructive, and the result in
this poem is a powerful song of grief. “I was unconscious when the doctor
slipped / her instruments in and took you out: / sac with no heartbeat,
placenta that wouldn’t / let go its hold, raspberry sized cluster / of cells
that didn’t put together right. / My love.” And then from that stanza to
17-year-old memories: driving, “stoned, around the Wisconsin countryside,”
drifting over the yellow line. Wondering: “Why do I think of those far away
days now, / and again and again?” Ringer
teems with excellent poems, including the title piece, which offers many truths
in a single page. “Each morning trumpeted into being with a chorus of baby
squawks,” the refrains of her life. It is a poem about motherhood, about
occupying space in this weary world. Snow clings to curbs, even as daffodils
push through mud. Life, all around her, tries its best. The narrator brings the
stroller around the block, again and again, the cycle bringing her back to her
son’s birth, when “two medical students / held my legs and joked about going to
the gym. The epidural coursed / strong medicine into my spine. The anesthesiologist
flitted in / and out of the room like a large hummingbird.” Lehmann, generously
and gracefully, swings us through entire lives.
Father’s Day by Matthew Zapruder
“When I was fifteen / I suddenly knew / I would never / understand geometry”; where Zapruder begins his poems, and where he ends them, are often quite different places—and that is one of the joys of Father’s Day, a heartfelt, melancholy collection. Often his columnar style naturally guides our eyes: he’s a poet of syntactic movement, often spare with punctuation, instead letting the lines themselves do the lifting. In “When I Was Fifteen,” he remembers “those inscrutable / formulas everyone / was busily into / their notebooks scribbling.” The narrator had his own talents. He writes the story of the field hockey star for the school paper, and then gives his history notes to her. She “took them / from my hands / like the blameless / queen of elegant / violence she was.” Zapruder has a great way of mapping our interiors, as when the narrator, wrapped-up in his down jacket, walks home and “listened to / the analog ghost / in the machine / pour from the cassette / I had drawn / flowers on.” Other poems are wry jabs, as with “Generation X”: “I was born the autumn / after a wave of flowers / swept the land // too late to appear in even / one poem by Frank O’Hara,” and “The Poetry Reading”: “At the poetry reading I am listening / to the endless introduction. / The young poet waits / for a cloud of applause / through which he will go / to his doom.” You’ve got to laugh at po-biz to stay alive. Also: stay for Zapruder’s beautiful afterword.
Daybook 1918: Early Fragments by J.V. Foix (edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti)
Foix is the pen name of Josep Vicenç Foix i Mas (1893-1987), a Catalan poet once lauded by Harold Bloom but largely neglected by English language readers and critics. Venuti does a necessary service in translating and curating these unusual and intriguing pieces. Daybook 1918 includes prose poems and fragments which Venuti notes “endows recognizably Catalan customs and geography with a surrealist quality” through a particular process: “Foix developed a method that favored not automatic writing, freed from rational control, but rather a combination of dream and hypnagogia.” Venuti is a sage and lyric guide through Foix’s strangeness. In one untitled piece, the narrator begins: “She assured me that two hundred young men lived in the village, each the owner of a black horse like mine.” No such thing is true, the man learns, as the “stables lie empty, as do the houses. Only my horse and I wander the village, night and day, through the labyrinth of its shadows.” Another piece, “Without Symbolism,” offers some: “The conductor of the municipal band is so corpulent that he takes up half the square. When he extends an arm, all the village children stretch out their hands to turn somersaults as if they were on the horizontal bar.” Foix’s poems are probably best read between midnight and dawn—or any similar time when we are most attuned to our shadow selves. Added bonus: a few excellent essays on poetry, consciousness, and art by Foix.
An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo
If you’ve somehow never experienced
the work of our new poet laureate, Harjo’s new book is a great introduction.
From “Seven Generations”: “Beneath a sky thrown open / To the need of stars /
To know themselves against the dark.” That reflexive turn—themselves—which could be so heavy and stodgy in the hands of a
lesser poet, becomes illuminating here. Sunrise, sunset, morning, night, pilgrimage—much
of Harjo’s book is about movement northward and drifting south. An introductory
note recalling the 1830 Indian Removal Act offers a roadmap to her central
theme: the desire of indigenous peoples to return home. In certain ways, this
happens through story: “I leave you to your ceremony of grieving / Which is
also of celebration / Given when an honored humble one / Leaves behind a trail
of happiness / In the dark of human tribulation.” She writes: “Once there were
songs for everything, / Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting, / For eating,
getting drunk, falling asleep, / For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” An American Sunrise affirms Harjo’s
identity as a poet of testimony. “Let’s honor the maker,” she ends one poem. “Let’s
honor what’s made.”
I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn
“Haecceity,” writes Flynn,
is a word “almost impossible / to pronounce,” but means “thisness, as in here / &
now”—which makes it quite useful. Flynn’s poetry does this: a little turn
or refraction to refocus our gaze, moving from words (their sounds and shapes)
to bodies (our sounds and shapes). “In / the end I held your arms briefly /
over your head & // warned that I was in no way / safe,” the narrator says.
He is “often not filled with any great love // for—of—God,” but “then, briefly
& wholly, your / thisness, like
// beeswax, it / filled me.” Wholly and holy, Flynn’s poems feel encompassing. Yet
there’s a tender fear of that action, as in “Life is Sweet”: “I worry sometimes
// how everything can be / contained // turned into a poem.” That’s a
refreshing worry. Flynn, who has powerfully mined his own life within his
poetry and prose, carries a particular caution in his lines. In “Saltmarsh,” he
writes of finding “a book, splayed / open, spine broken, // facedown in the
flattened // grass.” Turned-over, the “words // slide off the page as if each /
were a bug // that dies in sunlight. It’s how / I want this // poem to be—unreadable—
/ not at the beginning // but by the end.” The words dissolving; the poem
becoming us and everything around us.
A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib
“& I tell my boys
there is a reason songs from the 90s are having a revival & it’s because
the heart & tongue are the muscles with the most irresistible histories.” Abdurraqib’s
lines lunge; his titles blur into the text. There’s real energy in this book,
and there’s also a compelling sense of love, longing, and loss. His poems hold
hope, but a measured one: “If one must pray, I imagine // it is most worthwhile
to pray towards endings. / The only difference between sunsets and funerals //
is whether or not a town mistakes the howls / of a crying woman for madness.” In
a series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time
Like This”—a question that is, tellingly, also a statement—Abdurraqib delivers
some of his most pointed lines: “maybe all the blues / requires is a door /
through which a person / can enter and exit.” He ends one poem: “a father
stands / over his crying son & hisses / I’ll
give you something to cry about / as if he didn’t already / bring a child
into a world / that requires neither of them.” A deft collection.
Valuing by Christopher Kondrich
Valuing opens with an apt epigraph from Simone Weil: “Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed.” Her words mark this collection. “It is alright,” Kondrich writes. “You may dwell in me.” Elsewhere: “In order to be immortal you have to be invisible to the part of you that knows you have to die.” Kondrich’s poems have the curious gift of being gently abstract—not vague, but broad, perhaps even kenotic. From Caedmon: “I sit with my head in my hands, turned / against everything. I’m facing what I think // is the wind. It has the eyes I’ve sought, / the skin I’ve felt under stone.” This outward sense makes many of Kondrich’s poems feel like hymns released into the sky. Valuing is a refreshingly sincere and skilled book about the ineffable: “Friend, if you are there, / come to meet me. I am drifting devoured. / I am ready to say goodnight. / Come meet me so I can release it.”