Flood of Fire: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy)

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Emezi, Ellmann, Barkan, Donoghue, Atwood, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of  Akwaeke Emezi, Lucy Ellmann, Ady Barkan, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pet: “Carnegie Medal–nominee Emezi (Freshwater for adults) makes their young adult debut in this story of a transgender, selectively nonverbal girl named Jam, and the monster that finds its way into their universe. Jam’s hometown, Lucille, is portrayed as a utopia—a world that is post-bigotry and -violence, where ‘angels’ named after those in religious texts have eradicated ‘monsters.’ But after Jam accidentaly bleeds onto her artist mother’s painting, the image—a figure with ram’s horns, metallic feathers, and metal claws—pulls itself out of the canvas. Pet, as it tells Jam to call it, has come to her realm to hunt a human monster––one that threatens peace in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Together, Jam, Pet, and Redemption embark on a quest to discover the crime and vanquish the monster. Jam’s language is alternatingly voiced and signed, the latter conveyed in italic text, and Igbo phrases pepper the family’s loving interactions. Emezi’s direct but tacit story of injustice, unconditional acceptance, and the evil perpetuated by humankind forms a compelling, nuanced tale that fans of speculative horror will quickly devour.”

Indelible In The Hippocampus edited by Shelly Oria

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Indelible In The Hippocampus: “Editor Oria (New York 1, Tel Aviv 0) compiles fiction, personal essays, and poetry from 21 female writers on the subjects of sexual assault, harassment, and other dehumanizing consequences of patriarchy, in order to bring #MeToo from screen to page and showcase voices less likely to be heard in mainstream media, including those of women of color, queer women, and trans women. The results are bracing and urgent. Kaitlyn Greenidge considers the question of who has the right to hear the story of her assault. Courtney Zoffness explores the implications of a student’s overtly sexualizing behavior, noting, ‘It didn’t matter that I had ten years on Charlie, or more degrees, or the power to fail him. He still felt compelled to exert sexual power.’ In a darkly comical standout piece of fiction, Elissa Schappell imagines an email exchange between a writer submitting the story of her rape for publication and a magazine editor, whose increasingly absurd and offensive notes culminate in a disclosure that, if the writer doesn’t meet the deadline, ‘We’re going to be forced to swap in a photo spread of Woody Allen’s greatest hits.’ The collection is far from an endless parade of suffering; the writers offer a sense of communal feeling, bravery, and triumph. It’s well worth readers’ time.”

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gun Island: “Ghosh’s latest (after Flood of Fire) is an intellectual romp that traces Bengali folklore, modern human trafficking, and the devastating effects of climate change across generations and countries. Dinanath Datta, who goes by the more Americanized Deen, is an antiques and rare-books dealer in Brooklyn. While in Calcutta, Deen encounters the tale of the Bonduki Sadagar, or the gun merchant, a localized riff on the familiar Bengali tale of a merchant and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes and poisonous creatures. Intrigued, Deen pays a visit to the Sundarbans, the borderlands from which the myth originated. At the shrine said to be protected by Manasa Devi, Deen encounters a snake that bites one of the young men with him, with nonfatal but mystical consequences. Shaken, but convinced that it was just a freak coincidence, the rationalist Deen returns to America, where his trip still haunts him. A tumultuous year and a half later, under the patronage of his dear friend Cinta, a glamorous Italian academic, Deen arrives in Venice for the book’s second half, where he befriends the local Bengali community and further uncovers the tale of the Bonduki Sadagar as he is drawn into relief efforts for the refugee crisis. Ghosh writes with deep intelligence and illuminating clarity about complex issues. This ambitious novel memorably draws connections among history, politics, and mythology.”

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ducks, Newburyport: “This shaggy stream-of-consciousness monologue from Ellmann (Sweet Desserts) confronts the currents of contemporary America. On the surface it’s a story of domestic life, as the unnamed female narrator puts it: ‘my life’s all shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling.’ Her husband, Leo, is a civil engineer; they have ‘four greedy, grouchy, unmanageable kids’; she bakes and sells pies; and nothing more eventful happens than when she gets a flat tire while making a pie delivery. Yet plot is secondary to this book’s true subject: the narrator’s consciousness. Written in rambling hundred-page sentences, whose clauses each begin with ‘the fact that…,’ readers are privy to intimate facts (‘the fact that I don’t think I really started to live until Leo loved me’), mundane facts (‘the fact that ‘fridge’ has a D in it, but ‘refrigerator’ doesn’t’), facts thought of in the shower (‘the fact that every murderer must have a barber’), and flights of associative thinking (‘Jake’s baby potty, Howard Hughes’s milk bottles of pee, opioid crisis, red tide’). Interspersed throughout is the story of a lion mother, separated from her cubs and ceaselessly searching for them. This jumble of cascading thoughts provides a remarkable portrait of a woman in contemporary America contemplating her own life and society’s storm clouds, such as the Flint water crisis, gun violence, and the Trump presidency. The narrator is a fiercely protective mother trying to raise her children the only way she knows how, in a rapidly changing and hostile environment. Ellmann’s work is challenging but undoubtedly brilliant.”

Unseen Poems by Rumi (translated by Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Unseen Poems: “With millions of copies of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet’s work sold worldwide, this new book containing many first-time translations will find a ready audience. While the love poems resemble the erotic verse popularized by previous editors (‘Again my eyes saw what no eyes have seen./ Again my master returned ecstatic and drunk’), several new poems stand out in their foregrounding of Rumi’s religious descent. ‘Why make a quibla of these questions and answers?/ Ask instead, the lesson of the silent ones, where is it?’ one of the book’s many ghazals proposes, referring to the direction Muslims face in prayer. The Koran figures throughout: ‘Let me swear an oath on Osman’s holy book,/ The pearl of that beloved, gleaming in Damascus,’ reminding contemporary readers of the centrality of Islam to Rumi’s worldview, even if, finally, what Gooch calls a ‘religion of love’ carries the day: ‘Someone is snipped away, and I am sewn to another,/ Stitched together, forever, seamlessly.’ Offering new insight into the poet’s spiritual life, these poems prove a valuable addition to Rumi’s oeuvre.”

Eyes to the Wind by Ady Barkan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eyes to the Wind: “Activist Barkan relates in this candid memoir how, after receiving a terminal illness diagnosis at age 32, he had to negotiate his failing body as his political star rose. In 2016, Barkan was diagnosed with ALS and given three to four years to live. Fueled by anger over his ‘outrageous’ situation, he sought to leave a legacy for his baby son and wife. A lawyer at the Center for Popular Democracy, Barkan initially resumed work on Fed Up, a campaign to encourage the Federal Reserve to enact policies beneficial to working-class Americans, but soon pivoted to health care, ‘bird-dogging’ members of Congress in visits to the Capitol. Barkan was wheelchair-bound by spring 2018 yet he embarked on a six-week cross-country tour in support of Democrats in the midterm elections (a sincere conversation with Arizona senator Jeff Flake about how a GOP tax plan would affect Medicare was captured in a video that went viral), ultimately sharing the stage with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. Throughout, Barkan weaves tales of law school and clerkships with insights into community organizing (a national movement led by a single person could ‘never approach the transformative political power that would be unleased by genuine mass movement of organized working-class people’). Barkan’s powerful narrative gives great insight into the nuts and bolts of political activism at work.”

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Akin: “Donoghue’s underwhelming latest features a troubled doppelgänger of the sweet naïf from her best-known novel, Room, a foul-mouthed 11-year-old named Michael, whose great-uncle Noah takes him to the French Riviera to save him from the foster care system after Michael’s father dies of an apparent overdose and his mother, who is in prison, is unable to care for him. In the present day, Noah, having discovered some photographs taken by his mother during the two years she spent in Vichy France, and wishing to discover their significance, travels to Nice with Michael in tow. Dialogue between the two predominates as they wander about the city, constantly squabbling along predictably generational lines, searching for clues about whether Noah’s mother was a Nazi collaborator or part of the Resistance. The reader is soon exasperated with Noah’s own collaboration with the author, who won’t let him solve the mystery without Michael’s age-appropriate technological savvy. This work seems like a pale redux of Room, with its depiction of the wonder of a sheltered boy supplanted by the cynicism of a damaged one, whose voice doesn’t always ring true. The gap between Michael’s view of the world and the reader’s feels less charged than it should be, though the book makes up for it to some degree with a very satisfying denouement. This is a minor work in Donoghue’s astounding oeuvre.”

Also on shelves this week: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

The Writer and I

For many in my generation, living and breathing amidst the colonial ruins and ebbing pride of Calcutta, Amitav Ghosh was the first writer in English to write about the everyday life that we lived. The first writer to write of the streets we took, the bookstores we shopped in, the distinguished poverty we lived in, in the language in which we weren’t accustomed to reading of these things.

His life and mine began mere miles apart. But he, with his Booker near-misses, his Oxford doctorate, his immersive prose and me with my lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling fan, have had rather parallel lives.

When I first touched his The Shadow Lines, I did not know who he was. I was 15 years old, it was a summer afternoon and I was rummaging in the one room of the attic of our rented home that held all our stuff. The book had no cover and its first 12 pages were missing. It lay open, underneath things that had been moved from house to house as we moved along with them.

It had been hurriedly put down. I imagined an aunt or an uncle reading it and then being called away. I imagined her shoving the book into the last box, assured that she would open it in the new house soon. I imagined the boxes getting comfortable in the rented rooms that grew increasingly smaller, and us losing the need to open those that held non-essential things. In 1945, my young grandparents had walked from what is now Bangladesh to what is now Bengal, as the British prepared to partition India. Since then, till about 2007, our family lived in one rented home after another. In its crowded home in a cardboard box, where it shared space with terra cotta dolls, Bengali translations of The Rig Veda, and the blankets that were meant to cushion blows to the fragile things, The Shadow Lines, with its dog ears and its maddening old smell, was the very Calcutta refugee that it speaks of in its own pages.

I read with the joy of a reader who had so far only read the English literature of the English. Ghosh was not writing the Calcutta of the colonisers, the Calcutta of the north with its lofty crumbling houses belonging to the Queen’s viceroys and their good friends; he was writing the south Calcutta where I lived, the south Calcutta where refugees from Bangladesh—like my grandparents had been and like the narrator’s grandmother had been—landed.

I did not know what a seminal text it had already become in postcolonial literature as I read it, but I remember the first feeling of oneness. Delirious, I wrote to Ghosh through the “Contact” page on his website. “I have been forever changed thanks to your book. My own grandmother is the same woman you have spoken of in Shadow Lines. [And then, in a leap of audacity] I have to ask you if you once had a grandmother who was like this.” Ghosh replied, “Dear Soumashree, thank you for writing to me. I am happy that the book resonated with you.”

The door to the dark underbelly of joy at an author’s acknowledgement had been opened.

As that summer gave way to the next, the newspapers filled with previews of Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in his Ibis trilogy. By then I had read three more books by Ghosh—The Hungry Tide, The Calcutta Chromosome, and Dancing in Cambodia—and he had become one of the writers whom I would regard as a personal literary trainer.

On July 10, 2008, I was browsing a bookstore in a south Calcutta mall when I noticed that Sea of Poppies was to be released on that evening by Ghosh himself. It was mid-afternoon then and the book release was scheduled at 7 p.m. Seven p.m. was also exactly the hour at which my mathematics tutor would arrive at my house. I went home and fell prostrate at my mother’s two feet.

My mother, the staunch disciplinarian, told me that not only was I allowed to cook up a story for my absence at the math class, but that she would come with me to the book release too.

The sun set on the glorious day and my mother and I caught a yellow taxi to go to the mall. On the way, I called my math teacher.

“Miss, I am very sorry, but I will be a little late today.”

“Why, what is the matter?”

“It is my eye, miss, I have had to come to the doctor.”

“What happened to your eye?”

“My left eye has developed a blind patch. I cannot see through the patch, though my vision is okay for the rest of the eye.”

“Oh. Okay. Yes, sure. Absolutely.”

We arrived on time and just as I was paying for the book, Ghosh entered the bookstore with his wife, the writer Deborah Baker. He looked tired, his shoulders drooping, but who cared, this was the first time I was seeing a writer I had loved in the flesh.

There was a short reading from the book, and as the compere read out an exchange from one of the first few pages of the hardcover, Ghosh stared into the distance with a frown on his face.

At last, the crowd was asked to queue for the signings. Ghosh rummaged in his pocket for a second and brought out a metal pen. The stage was set.

I noticed that everyone was saying something to Ghosh to which he was gently nodding and responding to. I briefly mulled over the line, “The character Mangala Bibi from The Calcutta Chromosome still wakes me up at nights,” but decided against it, in what was singularly the only occasion where I have looked before I leapt.

The woman in front of me spelt her name out for him, “J-I-N-I-A.”

“Oh, what a beautiful name, is there a particular reason behind it?” asked Ghosh.

“I don’t know, my father just like the flower I think,” she said.

“Oh, haha,” said Ghosh.

“Can you mention the date, please, sir?” she said.

“Of course, of course.”

Next was I. Before Ghosh even opened to the page, I had said, “Good evening, sir, my name is Soumashree. S-O-U-M-A-S-H-R-E-E” in one breath.

Ghosh looked wearily at me and then said, “S-O-U?”

“M-A-S-H-R-E-E.”

In two seconds it was over. So I clutched at the only straw available.

“Sir, can you put in the date please, sir?”

He had already closed the book.

“Sure, absolutely.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Thank you.”

I returned to my mother, standing at a distance, brandishing the book half expecting people in the mall and on the streets to come running up to me to check out the signed copy. Once home, I ambled into my room where my teacher was hunched over the table, asleep.

“How do you feel?” asked miss.

“Much better,” I said and sighed.

I read Sea of Poppies, turning often to the first signed page. It was rich and homely—a Bengali book written in English.

Exactly two years later, on the same day, I would enter my university’s famed English department. Once inside, I read Amitav Ghosh with renewed vigour in classes where The Hungry Tide was taught with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, where passages of In an Antique Land made our professor’s voice quiver, and where The Shadow Lines returned in classes devoted to the larger narrative of nation formation and rupture.

I was deep into the tumult of daily college life when the second part of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, was upon us in 2011. This book, too, was to release in the same bookstore at the same mall. This time, I noticed from the newspaper ads that Ghosh was to speak in at least three other city venues during the concentrated time period in which he was stopping at Calcutta while touring the country with the book.

It had rained heavily on the day, and when I reached the bookstore after a robust fight with my boyfriend, it was entirely full. Ghosh would be in conversation with the maverick Rimi B. Chatterjee—a novelist and my writing professor at university. This time I knew most of the crowd assembled. Classmates, professors, lecturers, friends who studied literature in other colleges, and my boyfriend all milled about in a spirit of great celebration while we waited for Ghosh.

He eventually arrived, looking tired. A classmate whispered, “I almost feel bad that he has to sign so many copies now.” A discussion ensued. A more lively and interactive one than the one in 2008, but a discussion which Chatterjee had to repeatedly maneuver back to the topic of the book, thanks to the garrulous Calcuttan’s natural inclination to begin a long, winding lecture whenever a microphone is handed to him. At the end of a young man’s nervous but long-winded account of how he felt Ghosh should have navigated the boatman’s experience in The Hungry Tide better, the audience had grown agitated and murmured dissent. Ghosh was unperturbed. He had a slight frown but he thanked the man for his opinion and answered him at length.

When the magic hour of the book signings arrived, the bookstore staff handed us small pieces of paper.

“What for?”

“Write your name on it.”

I willingly wrote all 16 letters of my full name on it before realizing that the paper was to act as reference for Ghosh as he signed our names on the books. They would speed the process and eliminate the ordeal of him having to figure out the hurriedly announced spellings of our names over the din.

When my turn came, I handed him the paper and he unquestioningly wrote down my whole name on the book. I remember thinking if he remembers writing the same name down years ago, and then thinking of all the names that he has had to write in the meantime.

“Do you study in college?” he abruptly asked.

“I…yes,” I stammered, looking around wildly for a professor to substantiate this.

“Oh. Where?” Ghosh asked.

“At Jadavpur,” I barely replied.

“Oh. Good,” said Ghosh, looking in Chatterjee’s direction, acknowledging my need to have a professor verify my presence.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Well, thank you,” he replied.

I showed my boyfriend the book. The next morning, we spotted ourselves in photographs of the book release that were published in newspapers.

Time flew, I got two degrees in English literature and moved to Bangalore to work as a journalist for the tabloid pages of an English daily. Tabloid it was, but within its pages, headlined by only the most conventionally beautiful of women, it had detailed theatre reviews, culture pages, and no fewer than a weekly 1,000 words devoted to literature. I did not like my job and its only perk was these book and theatre stories that we got to write. I wrote these with a lot of vigor, but as a new entrant into the city’s tabloid circle, I never quite got into the groove of receiving the first promotional email of any event and was routinely beaten to the juicy book reviews and theatre previews by my colleagues.

One Wednesday in June 2015, my boss suddenly asked, “Do you want to interview Amitav Ghosh day after tomorrow?”

“What?”

“His Flood of Fire is releasing and I had not noticed the email,” she said. “I will forward it to you. Make sure you read some of his work before going.”

I festered in silence. The email entered my inbox. I called the contact it mentioned at Penguin Random House, Ghosh’s publisher.

“It’s a bit late in the day, isn’t it?” she said.

“I know, but I was just delegated the interview,” I said.

“Take this guy Varun’s number. He’s in charge of the interviews,” she said.

I called this guy Varun.

“Your newspaper’s Chennai office is doing an interview for the national Sunday page review already,” he said.

“I was hoping to speak with him about his particular experience of Bangalore,” I lied.

“Well, that’ll be difficult. Amitav is not doing very well, he is rather ill, so even if I could have squeezed you in under normal circumstances, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that now,” he said.

I almost laughed in relief.

“I understand. Please give him my best.”

“Thanks a lot for being so easy to convince, Soumashree. Please do come at the book launch event.”

“Oh sure, I will.”

The pressure lifted. What questions could I frame for a 10-minute long interview with Ghosh? What questions need one ask the custodian of one’s literary consciousness?

The next day, I went to the boss and told her that we had missed securing a slot in a day’s interactions with Ghosh.

“Do try to go for the evening launch tomorrow, though,” the editor said.

I opened the email again and stared at the location. It was in an atrium at a five-star hotel at the center of the city. Having edited the “Party” pages of the newspaper and attended one too many nightly events where Bangalore’s “it” crowd converged to be photographed, I knew immediately what kind of evening this would be. A staple crowd would turn up to be photographed, they would make small talk and disperse like they dispersed in every other party, no matter what the occasion.

Ghosh had passed from the ambit of mall store book releases into the “entry by invitation only” exclusivity. This was no bookstore. This launch would have no crowd of talkative people so neck-deep in the ethos of Hungry Tide that they forget that there is an audience around them. I was livid. I did not go.

A day later, the lifestyle editor of our newspaper told us that Ghosh was extremely polite and had signed all her books with great courtesy.

“He is a Bengali, like you. Have you read anything by him?”

I raged in silence at a writer climbing the last step of impenetrability and moving out of the reach of the people—his people. How dare the Ghosh of the attic afternoons, the Ghosh whose Burma reflected the one my father spent the best three years of his life, the Ghosh who wrote characters like the softly rebellious Tridib whom we find in every single Bengali home…how dare he betray the shared smallness of our Calcutta to the in-your-face prosperity of Bangalore.

Does the literature that rises from Calcutta belong to the city alone? Yes, I told myself.

I was ashamed even then of feeling this way. But while the likelihood of Ghosh himself announcing that he would like to have a book launch at a hotel instead of a bookstore was pretty slim, I seethed and vowed never to buy this third book.

In 2016, I moved back to Calcutta to work on my own novel. And that year, Ghosh released The Great Derangement. Every publication brought out an interview. I purchased all the magazines that had them. Eventually, I saw a circulating flier on Facebook saying Ghosh would come to a discussion at my university. “All were welcome.”

Events and talks follow a particular tradition at my university. At any given day, somewhere on the campus, a crowd would form around a world-famous academic, leader, writer, or performer visiting then. And the great thing about the crowd was that it was never limited to the students and teachers of the relevant department or even the university. The gates were open to all, all events were open to all.

I reached the hall on a sunny afternoon and could barely open the door enough to slip in. It was entirely full. Ex-students, researchers, professors, ex-professors, organizers, absolute strangers, and current students occupied every inch of the floor and sweated through the air conditioning. Some of the seat handles even had a student on it, crouching low, so as to not obstruct the view of the people behind him or her. The windowsills were occupied. Three people sat on the small bench meant for the sound guy. I sat down on the floor, along with nearly 30 others. Ghosh sat relaxed, and then took out his smartphone and took a photograph of us.

He was in conversation with a professor of comparative literature and one of oceanography. With all the laughter, the effortless discussion, and the way Ghosh referred to how much he had enjoyed an earlier talk at Jadavpur University—a talk in 2008, on the same day when he had gone to the bookstore where I would first see him—he was making amends for releasing Flood of Fire in a swank hotel. The microphone faltered, the room grew hot, but the deep conspiracy of a summer afternoon on Calcutta was at work once again. The writer was ours once again, putting a lid on my jealousy.

Amitav Ghosh would later tweet the photograph of the event. I am there.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Year in Reading: Bridgett M. Davis

Throughout this year, I’ve been writing a proposal for a memoir about my mother. To inspire myself, and to indulge in others’ work before I’m afraid of being influenced by it, I’ve read and reread several memoirs. Of those, I came away from Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World in renewed awe and gratitude for how she shows a shimmering portrait of mutual love. With Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, I marveled at the wit and razor-sharp lens she brought to bear on her own pretensions, born of racist confines. I found Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, with its daughter raised by a single gay father in 1970s San Francisco, bearing witness in an essential way. I then discovered on my own bookshelf Hilton Als’s searing and astonishing book The Women. I’m almost embarrassed to say I bought this book off a discounted-book table at an indie bookstore years ago and hadn’t yet read it. I devoured it as if to make up for lost time. No one, anywhere, has yet to convey with such unapologetic rigor and compassion the interior life of a black mother, and I haven’t fully recovered from it.

When Feminist Press announced its Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, I again reread my worn copy of her seminal novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, just to remind myself anew how books change lives, how that book changed mine. Also, I’m fortunate enough to direct a writer-in-residence program at the college where I teach, which allows me to invite several writers to campus. It makes for a natural homework assignment, as I always read their work before they arrive. Lucky me that my homework this year included Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Flood of Fire about the opium trade in 1800s India (read the entire trilogy and be amazed); Monique Truong’s magnificent Bitter in the Mouth, about a Vietnamese-American growing up in the American South; Marilyn Nelson’s poignant memoir, How I Discovered Poetry (which took me back to her Faster Than Light: New And Selected Poems); and Morgan Parker’s smart, sharp poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (stay tuned for her 2017 release, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce).

This year also marks my son’s senior year in high school; he wants to pursue acting. His drama teacher assigned Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist and, as I sometimes do, I read the book alongside him. In light of the election, Deveare Smith acutely reminded me that artists’ activism is everything. Speaking of which, on Sunday following the election, I joined authors Nicole Dennis-Benn and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh on a panel for The Hustle reading series in Brooklyn. It was soothing to come together around literature, and I’m grateful to now have Dennis-Benn’s revelatory novel, Here Comes the Sun, at my bedside to tumble into each night, like a balm. But I’m still reeling from something voiced during that panel. When I noted that a Donald Trump presidency (writing that phrase feels so tawdry and sad) required us all to “do more,” Al-Khatahtbeh said, “I plan to do less.” She said that since 9/11, she and other women Muslim writers and activists had spent untold time and resources and psychic energy trying to convince “them” that they too are Americans, that they too love this country, that they are not the enemy. She said, essentially, that it’s time for others to do that work. Amen.

I went home and read her slim, explosive memoir, Muslim Girl, and was startled by its candor and force, and also by how prescient the book is. In describing her experience of being in Britain this past summer, Al-Khatahtbeh wrote: “As impossible as we were hoping — imagining — the rise of racism to be, it can, in fact, win. The U.K.’s decision (Brexit), was a clear demonstration of that, and, at worst, it was a sign of what was waiting for us come November.”

I’m like most of you, I’m sure, in that I’ve read a lot of essays and op-eds and news stories and manifestos since the election. Nothing shook me like the words of Sarah Kendzior, who has studied authoritarian states for over a decade. “My Fellow Americans, I have a favor to ask you,” she wrote. “I want you to write about who you are…what standards you hold for yourself and for others…Never lose sight of…what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.”

Looking back, I see now that the best books I’ve read this year are themselves a prescient compilation, a kind of personalized, serial guidebook for the new world order we now inhabit; it’s an indicator of what I believe in, who I strive to be, what matters to me. I plan to remind myself of this in the dark days ahead, remind myself that it’s important to remain true to my own ideals.

What’s really important, as we enter 2017, is that we validate one another’s humanity. May good books help us do just that.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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