It’s safe to say that Tumblr saved my reading life. By the time I began using police composite sketch software to create images of literary characters suggested by Tumblr users I had really stopped reading fiction. Between sorting short stories every month at Joyland and switching from writing unsold novels to working on film and television scripts, my relationship to fiction had trailed off to a sluggish pulse. When The Composites took off, I started reading what thousands of complete strangers told me to read and, in the process, I rid myself of a lifetime of habits, biases, and poorly formed opinions on what literature should be. I killed my inner pundit.
Answering the hive mind of Tumblr, I was sent rummaging through my books in storage. I searched Project Gutenberg. I skulked the aisles of The Strand bookstore with pen and notebook, hoping to not get caught. While I thought I probably looked thoroughly insane, I’m confident the staff had seen worse. Hell, I even bought a few books.
This accelerated thesis-style surveying of 400 random novels over eight months allowed me to revisit books from my past and to see their forgotten influence on me now. Stephen King may have unknowingly swiped the title Joyland, but I still think Misery is a bitter, hilarious, and brilliant novel. Not before or since has such a popular author figuratively punished his fans with effortless postmodernism — a nuance I may have missed when I first read it at age 13.
I re-read The Recognitions, William Gaddis’s messy, vital book about the impossibility of living authentically. His consciousness-altering writing merged with The Composites, from the definite article title to the heady brew of ideas about representation and originality. Even the resulting composite image of the protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, felt like a mystery solved. Gaddis had described a face much like his own.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s perfect novel The Master and Margarita was something I boldly lied about having read before and once you lie about having read a book it’s very difficult to undo deceptions you’ve built your life on. Jonathan Lethem’s funny and affecting The Fortress of Solitude was a novel that sat on our shelf for years (it’s one of my wife’s favorite books). Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is the story I now most want to see as a TV show adaptation.
The default of the hive mind is to reiterate the popular. A composite drawn from Gaiman’s novel created waves of nerdgasms throughout Tumblr while something like the composite from The Recognitions brought a smattering of applause from five men in cardigans. I tried to keep the balance of popular and unpopular in phase during my nine months of social reading but what most changed my understanding of literature was being asked to look at staggeringly popular books.
Women who write popular books are given a raw deal out of the critical gates, judged on criteria that similarly popular male authors never face. How much had I unconsciously absorbed that bias? Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is not a book I would have read without hundreds of requests for me to do so, but I’m glad I did. It is a damn good book. Collins’s writing is economical and elegant and the novel’s allegories about class and entertainment are sharper than literary attempts to explore the same subjects.
Having spent a year speed-reading and skimming 400 books, I think I deserve another few years off. When I do start again, though, I know it will be as a freer, more open reader.
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The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is a curious group, though given that they’re a writers’ guild, curious is par for the course. Gathering together scribblers from two related but nevertheless distinct disciplines under one umbrella seems like a holdover from a less genre-friendly time, when artists like these needed to band together for strength and comfort. After all, when the Edgar Awards come out every year, it’s under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; that’s it, just mystery.
But the SFWA are a welcoming bunch, nevertheless, handing out their Nebula Award in recent years to everyone from crackerjack dreamweavers like Neil Gaiman (the mainstream dark fantasy American Gods in 2002 and the fey nightmare Coraline in 2003) to once-mainstream writers gone gleefully genre like Michael Chabon (his brilliantly imagined counterfactual-cum-detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in 2007). Time will tell if the last decade’s batch of winners will hold up to scrutiny like those in its first decade, when the Nebula was passed out to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, three foundational works in 20th century science fiction.
There are six novels nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, which will be announced May 19th. They cover the future, the present, and the indefinable. They feature shy faeries, magicians who wield bugs like weapons, and a postapocalyptic steampunk traveling circus. What they don’t do much of is splash about in that shallow, mucky pool of vampire/alien/cop/erotica/fallen angel serial potboilers (new variations ever-spinning off as though generated by some genre virus) being snapped up by ever more readers. Only two of the six Nebula nominees are series books, the rest are novel-novels – left to live or die on their own, no cliffhangers to entice you back.
Firebird by Jack McDevitt: McDevitt is one of those increasingly rare practitioners of the far-future space opera; unfortunately, Firebird is not exactly an advertisement for the subgenre. The sixth of a series, it’s narrated by Chase Kolpath, dutiful assistant to the series’ star, Jack Benedict, a kind of archaeologist-cum-rare antiquities dealer (an earlier Benedict novel, Seeker, took the Nebula in 2006). Chase and Jack meander their way into a mystery linking a disappeared physicist named Christopher Robin and a series of spaceships that have disappeared. The prose has the monotone feel of a constant hum, only slightly upticking even when Chase and Jack are besieged by a band of malevolent AIs rampaging about like more advanced versions of the human-hating machines in Stephen King’s “Trucks.” Alex’s God-like sagacity turns less Sherlockian as the story bumps on, Chase’s dully Watson-like dependability is slightly tweaked, but the lack of dimensionality to the characters is nearly complete. It’s true that McDevitt ratchets up the cross-dimensional drama once more is discovered about the disappeared ships and stirs some embers of an intriguing debate over the souls of AIs. Sadly, though, he sets aside any attempt to portray a cross-galaxy human society many centuries in the future as truly any different from today’s.
The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin is a rising talent with a couple of Hugo and Nebula nominations to her credit and a sharp voice — check out her quasi-manifesto: “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” Like half of this year’s nominees, her novel is more fantasy than science fiction, but as previously discussed, all are welcome here. The final entry in her “Inheritance Trilogy,” The Kingdom of Gods is set in the same magic-plagued world as the previous two, but with different characters. The narrator Sieh, is a “godling” who still winces at the memory of his long imprisonment by the Arameri, a tyrannical human dynasty (whose Vatican-sized palace is built in a “World Tree” the size of a mountain range) which has lost the power to enslave gods. Sieh’s a bratty and bloody-minded Loki-esque trickster figure who thinks nothing of slaughtering dozens in a fit of pique, but nevertheless steals the hearts of a pair of Arameri royal siblings. Jemisin paces her book fast and knotty (the glossary at back helps), downgrading Sieh to mortal status and setting him adrift in the roiling dramas of this hyperbolic, violent, and power-crazed world. It’s overripe and overplotted, but rich with detail and emotion; she channels the darker fratricidal and genocidal themes of Greek mythology like few other writers can. Jemisin doesn’t make the mistake of ascribing human morality to her godly characters just because they have recognizably human emotions.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine: Valentine’s short fictions have been anthologized many times — everywhere from various Year’s Best collections to more themed-works like War and Space — but this is her first novel. The easiest definition of Mechanique’s loosely-threaded story would be “steampunk circus.” No airships and not a pair of goggles to be seen, but still, there’s enough fascination with clanking machinery and low-tech bioware, as well as a fuzzy disinterest in time-period specificity. Call it steampunk-adjacent. The Circus Tresaulti, as described by the young and romantic narrator George, is a fabulist’s dream of patched-together tents and critically wounded performers reborn as pre-digital cyborgs with metallic limbs, surgically attached wings, and lighter-than-air bones (the latter very handy for the aerialists). Their female Ahab is known only as the Boss (whose skill with the performers’ mechanized add-ons seems more than a little Faustian), the circus trundles through a vaguely-described and war-blasted landscape of ruined cities and feral audiences. The whole affair is tied together far too late in the game with a climax that feels too familiar by half. Valentine has imagination, but only to a point. Her characters take too long to come into focus, and her writing just doesn’t have the strength to carry such a lightly-plotted piece to fruition.
God’s War by Kameron Hurley: First-timer Hurley has a sensibility not too far removed from Jemisin’s. Both have a fine feel for action and have no compunctions about burying readers up to their necks in conspiracies and bloody intrigue. Where Jemisin works in a vein of mythological overkill, Hurley has a grittier cyberpunk feel to her writing. Her fascinating God’s War is another far-future story set on a planet far from Earth in terms of light years, but quite neighborly in the similarity of its politics and problems. Two vaguely Muslim nations, Nasheen and Chenjan, have been locked in a grinding war for longer than living memory. The planet is ridden with disease and toxic with religious orthodoxy and terrorism-inspired paranoia. What high technology there exists seems to come entirely from the specific manipulations of the planet’s native bug species. With entire generations of men sacrificed to the front, women comprise nearly all of civilian society. Hurley’s antiheroine, Nyx, is a former Nasheenian bel dame, or court-appointed assassin, who now plies her trade (bringing a bounty’s severed head back to whoever can pay) freelance. When Nyx is hired for a particularly onerous job, she takes on a larger crew, including Rhys, a Chenjan magician who is not particularly good at bug magic but will do for now. Hurley is a gut-punch kind of writer, with harsh characters in a harsh world doing whatever they think is necessary to survive — even if survival frequently seems little better than the alternative.
Embassytown by China Miéville: The newest, frequently baffling novel by the never-rote Miéville is the most welcome entry in this list, most particularly because it is the novel that most truly immerses readers into a world well beyond their ken. On the planet of Arieki, humans live in tenuous coexistence with an alien race known as the Hosts. A delicate balancing act keeps most humans in circumscribed boundaries, the only dialogue capable via human ambassadors who work in pairs. (The Hosts speak via two mouths, resulting in twinned streams of communication, a fascinating concept that Miéville runs wild with.) The book’s narrator is Avice, an Arieki woman who works as an immernaut, piloting the great depths of space between systems. She is wrangled into helping manage the crisis that erupts after a verbal virus begins to spread in the Hosts, leading to the collapse of the planet’s social order and the threat of all-out war. Miéville’s world is an immersive one, with few roadsigns to assist the beleaguered. But the novel’s all-encompassing alien nature is like a lexicographical blanket, enveloping the reader in abstruse, world-changing theories and riddle-wrapped drama. It’s all less dense than it sounds, for all Miéville’s language-mad word wizardry, there’s a thread of story here that makes it as thrilling and readable as any work of science fiction in recent memory.
Among Others by Jo Walton: You could consider Walton more a fan of science fiction than a practitioner of it, but that isn’t to do disservice to her writing, it’s to give credit to the potency and sharpness of her fandom. Among Others is a rainy, moody thing where the story is little more than a whisper. The narrator, Morwenna Phelps, is a Welsh girl (like Walton) who’s sent off to boarding school in England after a mishap with magic cost the life of her sister but just may have saved the world from the evil powers of their witch mother. Now Morwenna walks with a cane and tries not to let her magic show around the posher schoolgirls (her ability to see and speak to fairies might throw them), all the while trying to reconnect with her daffy father and figure out what to do if her mother returns. That’s all background atmosphere, though. Walton’s real story is Morwenna’s love of science fiction. The novel is told in diary form, and nearly every entry includes some finely argued notation on the joys and merits of what she’s reading. Her list is heavy with dark transgressors like Samuel R. Delany and John Brunner, as befitting Walton’s late-1970s setting. There’s a gripping, deeply-learned love here that goes beyond mere fandom, delivering one of the most intelligently impassioned odes to science fiction, and reading in general, ever put to paper. As Morwenna says on entering her father’s study: “I actually relaxed in his presence, because if there are books perhaps it won’t be all that bad.” Anybody who has felt the glow and tug of mind-warping joy that comes with devouring a stack of broken-spined sci-fi paperbacks will know exactly what she means.
While sending out calls for contributors, one writer responded to my email with the observation that these lists “seem to be the new fashion.” True. In the past few weeks, on Twitter and Facebook and wherever else I went to play hooky, these lists — 100 Notable Books, 10 Best Novels of 2011, 5 Cookbooks Our Editors Loved, etcetera — were lying in wait, or rather, Tumblr-ing all over the place. Of course, as an eternal sucker for the dangled promise of a good book, I had to read this one, to see what was on offer, and that one, to get it out of the way, and oh yes that one, because . . . just because. I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m just establishing that I have read a lot of these lists, in only the past few weeks, and shared them myself on Facebook and Twitter, usually at times when I should have been working; and now, since I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of seeing the same books on list after list after list, lists drawn up by respected, respectable folks in the same circles of influence, I have reached out to a band of fresh voices (some new, some established, some you know, some you will soon) and compiled the alternative, the underground, the “oh-yes-that-one” list of favorite books of 2011.
Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun: When Precious Williams was three months old, her neglectful, affluent Nigerian mother placed her with elderly, white foster parents in a racist, working-class neighborhood in West Sussex, England. Precious: A True Story by Precious Williams tells this wrenching story. I kept reading for the clean, wry, angry prose. Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is a brilliant example of how poetry can resurrect history and memory. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money. Philip excavates the court transcript from the resulting legal case — the only account of the massacre — and fractures it into cries, moans, and chants cascading down the page. I was tempted to recommend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, since it came out in 2011. It does a lovely job capturing Kenya on the verge of independence, but read side by side, Wizard of the Crow demands attention. A sprawling, corrosive satire about a corrupt African despot, filled with so-called magical realism, African-style. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen. Rwanda-based Belgian expat Stassen employs beautifully drawn and colored panels to tell the tragic story of Deogratias, a Hutu boy attracted to two Tutsi sisters on the eve of the genocide. After the atrocities Deogratias becomes a dog, who narrates the tale.
Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou is, despite its misogynistic tendencies in parts, a brilliant book. A biting satire about desperate conditions and characters who hang out at a slum bar called Credit Gone West, it should make you cry, but you can’t help but laugh bitterly.
Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City: If a novel is a pint, short stories are like shooters: they don’t last long, but the good ones hit you hard and linger in your chest after. I loved African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala, a wonderful collection of township stories loosely inspired by Can Themba’s Sofiatown classic “The Suit.” In novels, Patrick DeWitt’s wry western, The Sisters Brothers, was fantastic, but I think my favorite book of the year was Patrick Ness’ beautiful and wrenching A Monster Calls, a fable about death and what stories mean in the world.
Margaret Busby, chair of the fiction judges for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature: White Egrets by Derek Walcott is a superb collection of poetry. Using beautiful cadences and evocative, sometimes startling images, Walcott explores bereavement and grief and being at a stage of life where the contemplation of one’s own death is inevitable. How to Escape a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique is a very accomplished collection that delivers thought-provoking themes, nuanced and vibrant writing, an impressive emotional range and a good grasp of the oral as well as the literary. Also I would mention Migritude by Shailja Patel. Patel’s encounters with the diaspora of her cultural identities — as a South-Asian woman brought up in Kenya, an Indian student in England, a woman of color in the USA — give this book a vibrant poignancy. “Art is a migrant,” she says, “it travels from the vision of the artist to the eye, ear, mind and heart of the listener.”
Nana Ayebia Clarke, founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing: Deservingly selected as overall winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna tackles the difficult subject of war and its damaging psychological impact. Set in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war, Forna’s narrative brings together the good, the bad, and the cowardly in a place of healing: a Freetown hospital to which a British psychologist has come to work as a specialist in stress disorder. The story that unfolds is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit.
Jude Dibia, author of Blackbird: There are a few novels of note written by black authors that I read this year, and one that comes readily to mind is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. This was a story that was as beautiful as it was tragic and revelatory. It told the tale of two childhood friends living in a country marred by military coups. Striking in this novel is the portrayal of friendship and family as well as the exploration of cult-driven violence in Nigerian universities.
Simidele Dosekun, author of Beem Explores Africa: My favorite read this year was The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Aminatta Forna. Set in Freetown, Sierra Leone before and after the war, it tells of intersecting lives and loves thwarted by politics. I read it suspended in an ether of foreboding about where one man’s obsession with another’s wife would lead, and could not have anticipated its turns. As for children’s books, I have lost count of the copies of Lola Shoneyin’s Mayowa and the Masquerades that I have given out as presents. It is a colorful and chirpy book that kids will love.
Dayo Forster, author of Reading the Ceiling: It is worth slogging past the first few pages of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, to get to a brilliantly captured early memory — a skirmish outside his mother’s salon about the precise placement of rubbish bins. Other poignant moments abound — as a student in South Africa, a resident of a poor urban area in Nairobi, adventures as an agricultural extension worker, a family gathering in Uganda. With the personal come some deep revelations about contemporary Kenya. Read it.
Petina Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly: I did not read many new books this year as I spent most of my time reading dead authors. Of the new novels that I did read, I most enjoyed The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who writes once every decade, it seems, and is always worth the wait. I also loved Open City by Teju Cole, which I reviewed for the Observer. I was completely overwhelmed by George Eliot’s Middlemarch and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, both of which I read for the first time this year, and have since reread several times. I hope, one day, or maybe one decade, to write a novel like Middlemarch.
Maggie Gee, author of My Animal Life: I re-read Bernardine Evaristo’s fascinating fictionalized family history, the new, expanded Lara, tracing the roots of this mixed race British writer back through the centuries to Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland — comedy and tragedy, all in light-footed, dancing verse. In Selma Dabbagh’s new Out of It, the lives of young Palestinians in Gaza are brought vividly to life — gripping, angry, funny, political. Somewhere Else, Even Here by A.J. Ashworth is a stunningly original first collection of short stories.
Ivor Hartmann, co-editor of the African Roar anthologies: Blackbird by Jude Dibia is a deeply revealing contemporary look at the human condition, yet compassionate throughout, well paced, and not without its lighter moments for balance. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, spans 61 years of his short stories and shows a clear progression of one of the kings of Sci-Fi. The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa is a vast, powerful, and masterful work, which focused on Paul Gauguin (and his grandmother).
Ikhide R. Ikheloa, book reviewer and blogger: I read several books whenever I was not travelling the world inside my iPad, by far the best book the world has never written. Of traditional books, I enjoyed the following: Blackbird by Jude Dibia, Open City (Random House, 2011) by Teju Cole, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011) by Binyavanga Wainaina, and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. These four books bring readers face-to-face with the sum of our varied experiences — and locate everyone in a shared humanity, and with dignity. They may not be perfect books, but you are never quite the same after the reading experience.
Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys: American Gods (William Morrow; 10 Anv ed., 2011) by Neil Gaiman is a novel of hope, of home, and of exile. It superbly interweaves Gaiman’s version of Americana with the plight of “old world” gods, many of them recognizable only by the subtlest of hints. We watch as these old gods do battle with humanity’s new gods: television, the internet, Medicare, and a superbly rendered personification of the sitcom. Read this book, and see the awkward boundaries between literary and genre fiction blur and disappear.
Tade Ipadeola, poet and president of PEN Nigeria: An Infinite Longing for Love by Lisa Combrinck. The voluptuous verse in this stunning book of poetry is a triumph of talent and a validation of the poetic tradition pioneered by Dennis Brutus. I strongly recommend this book for sheer brilliance, and for how it succors the human condition. Desert by J.M.G Le Clézio emerges essentially intact from translation into English, and it weaves a fascinating take of the oldest inhabitants of the Sahara. It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong tackles endemic corruption in Africa and the global response — a powerful book.
David Kaiza, essayist: The Guardian voted The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm as one of the top 100 books of the past century. I don’t care much for these listings, but there is a lot of truth to that choice. Hobsbawm is a Marxist historian, and his insight into the 200 years that re-shaped man’s world (and, as he says, changed a 10,000-year rhythm of human society) is transformational. In 2011, I read 10 of his books, including the priceless Bandits which put Hollywood’s Western genre in perspective and, among others, made me appreciate The Assassination of Jesse James as much as I understood Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. There must be something to a historian who makes you take animation seriously.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, author of Tail of the Blue Bird: This year I finally managed to read and fall in love with The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which had been sitting on my shelf since last year. It draws on the little-known true incident of a ship of European Jews forced into temporary exile in Mauritius close to the end of the Second World War and weaves around it a simple, compelling story of friendship between two boys — one a Jewish boy in captivity, the other an Indian-origin Mauritian who has already known incredible trauma at a young age. The friendship ends in tragedy, but in the short space of its flowering and the lives that follow, Nathacha Appanah manages to explore the nature of human connection, love, and endurance, and the place of serendipity in ordering lives. A great read. My plea to my fellow Africans would be to pay more attention to writing from the more peripheral countries like Mauritius and the Lusophone countries; there is some great work coming out of the continent from all fronts. Given my fascination with language, especially sparsely-documented African languages and the stories they can tell us, I have been enjoying Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is a fascinating re-examination of the assumptions language scholars have made for years. Drawing on examples from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, he argues that contrary to popular lore, languages don’t limit what we can imagine but they do affect the details we focus on — for example, a language like French compels you to state the gender if you say you are meeting a friend, whereas English does not. Brilliantly written and accessible, I’d recommend it for anyone who has ever considered thinking of languages in terms of superior and inferior.
Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of A Peculiar Tragedy: Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Her argument was the presumed complicity of Jews themselves in Hitler’s holocaust, which necessarily created considerable controversy. Eichmann was a loyal Nazi who ensured the deaths of many before fleeing to Argentina. He was kidnapped by Israel and put on trial, but the figure he cut seemed to the author to reveal the ultimate bureaucrat pleased with his unswerving loyalty to duly constituted authority, hence the famous “banality of evil” phrase she coined. Arendt also notes that throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, only Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria resisted rounding up their Jewish populations as unacceptable.
Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: I couldn’t put down Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and wondered what took me so long discover it. The story follows a young man who returns to his village near the Nile in Sudan after years studying aboard. There is startling honesty in these pages, as well as prose so breathtakingly lyrical it makes ugly truths palatable. With a new introduction by writer Laila Lalami, even if you’ve read it once, it could be time to pick it up again. What more can I add to the rave reviews that have come out about the memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place by Binyavanga Wainaina? I found myself holding my breath in some parts, laughing in others, feeling my heart break for him as he tries to find his way in a confusing world. Wainaina’s gaze on his continent, his country, his family and friends, on himself is unflinching without being cruel. The writing is exhilarating. It explodes off the page with an energy that kept me firmly rooted in the world of his imagination and the memories of his childhood. By the end, I felt as if a new language had opened up, a way of understanding literature and identity and what it means to be from this magnificent continent of Africa in the midst of globalization. It’s been hard to consider the Arab Spring without thinking about the African immigrants who were trapped in the violence. The Italian graphic novel Etenesh by Paolo Castaldi tells of one Ethiopian woman’s harrowing journey from Addis Ababa to Libya and then on to Europe. At the mercy of human traffickers, numbed by hunger and thirst in the Sahara desert, Etenesh watches many die along the way, victims of cruelties she’ll never forget. Thousands continue to make the same trek today — struggling to survive against all odds. Her story is a call to remember those still lost in what has become another middle passage.
Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death: Habibi by Craig Thompson is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It is a graphic novel that combines several art forms at once. There is lush Arabic calligraphy that meshes with unflinching narrative that bleeds into religious folklore that remembers vivid imagery. Every page is detailed art. The main characters are an African man and an Arab woman, and both are slaves. Also, the story is simultaneously modern and ancient and this is reflected in the setting. There are harems, eunuchs, skyscrapers, pollution. I can gush on and on about this book and still not do it justice.
Chibundu Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter: The Help by Kathryn Stockett struck all the right chords. The plot was compelling, the characters were sympathetic, and the theme of race relations is ever topical. If you’re looking for a gritty, strictly historical portrait of life as a black maid in segregated Mississippi, perhaps this book is not for you. But if you want to be entertained, then grab The Help.
Shailja Patel, author of Migritude: In this tenth anniversary year of 9/11, the hauntingly lovely Minaret by Leila Aboulela is the “9/11 novel” I recommend, for its compelling story that confounds all expectations. Hilary Mantel’s epic Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, had me riveted for a full four days. It shows how a novel can be a breathtaking ride through history, politics, and economics. Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts by P. Sainath should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the missionary enterprise of “development.”
Laura Pegram, founding editor of Kweli Journal: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is “the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date.” The reader is finally allowed to know the man and his music, as well as the folks who shaped him. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe. In this novel, the reader comes to know sisters with “half-peeled scabs over old wounds” who use sex to survive in Antwerp. Winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry, Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney is a stunning work of graceful remembrance.
Henrietta Rose-Innes, author of Nineveh: Edited by Helon Habila, The Granta Book of the African Short Story is a satisfyingly chunky volume of 29 stories by some of the continent’s most dynamic writers, both new and established. The always excellent Ivan Vladislavic’s recent collection, The Loss Library, about unfinished/unfinishable writing, offers a series of brilliant meditations on the act of writing — or failing to write. And recently I’ve been rereading Return of the moon: Versions from the /Xam by the poet Stephen Watson, who tragically passed away earlier this year. I love these haunting interpretations of stories and testimonies from the vanished world of /Xam-speaking hunter-gatherers.
Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter: Some years ago, the Chinese essayist, Liao Yiwu published The Corpse Walker, a series of interviews with men and women whose aspirations, downfalls, and reversals of fortune would not be out of place in the fictions of Dickens, Dostoevsky or Hrabal. The Corpse Walker is a masterpiece, reconstructing and distilling the stories of individuals — an Abbott, a Composer, a Tiananmen Father, among so many others — whose lives, together, create a textured and unforgettable history of contemporary China. Liao’s empathy and humour, and his great, listening soul, have created literature of the highest calibre. My other loved books from this year are the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s story collection The Foxes Come at Night, a visionary and beautiful work, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street: Contemporary Chinese Women Writers II has got to be one of my favorite books of the year. I recently picked it up in a delightful bookshop in London. When I was growing up in Enugu, I was lucky to live very close to three bookshops, and I would often go in to browse, and sometimes buy books. It was in one of those bookstores that I discovered a dusty copy of Chinese Literature — and I flipped through and became thoroughly enchanted. I bought the copy and had my father take out a subscription for me. For the next few years the journal was delivered to our home, and I almost always enjoyed all the stories but my favorite was a jewel by Bi Shumin titled “Broken Transformers.” I never forgot that story and was thrilled to discover it (along with five other fantastic short stories) in this anthology.
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, author of God of Poetry: Search Sweet Country by B. Kojo Laing is a great novel that curiously remains unsung. Originally published in 1986, and reissued in 2011 with an exultant foreword by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, Search Sweet Country is a sweeping take on Ghana in the years of dire straits. As eloquent as anything you will ever read anywhere, the novel is filled with neologisms and peopled with unforgettable characters. B. Kojo Laing is sui generis.
Zukiswa Wanner, author of Men of the South: On a continent where dictators are dying as new ones are born, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote remains for me one of the best political satires Africa has yet produced. I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a rib-cracking book highlighting a situation that everyone with an email account has become accustomed to, 419 scam letters. The beauty and the hilarity of this book stems from the fact that it is written — and written well — from the perspective of a scammer.
Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower: Season of Rains: Africa in the World by Stephen Ellis. It’s rare for a book to make you think about the same old subjects in fresh ways. The tell-tale sign, with me, is the yellow highlighting I feel obliged to inflict upon its pages. My copy of Ellis’ book is a mass of yellow. It’s a short and accessibly-written tome, but packs a weighty punch. Ellis tackles our preconceptions about the continent, chewing up and spitting out matters of state and questions of aid, development, culture, spirituality, Africa’s past history and likely future. The cover photo and title both failed to impress me but who cares, given the content?
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)