For me, this year
of reading is forever captured by the words of our literary genius Toni
Morrison. Upon hearing of her death, I clung to her now famous quote: “We
die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the
measure of our lives.”
And then I did what I’m sure millions of other readers did: pulled a Morrison classic from the bookshelf—for me it was Sula—and devoured it anew, hungry for the language that only she could do. That slim perfect novel entered my life at a critical moment, when I was searching for a way to understand what I might uniquely say, as a young black woman writer. Sula, in its astonishing portrayal of a black woman like none we’d seen before, liberated my understanding of what was possible.
Weeks ago, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I participated in a continuous reading of Beloved for ‘Til Victory Is Won, a teach-in examining freedom movements from the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter. Reciting Morrison’s work out loud reminded me of its power and urgency and beauty, because sometimes we must be reminded of what we already know to be true. After that experience, I felt compelled to listen to Beloved on audiobook, to remain awash in the language, this time gifted to me in Morrison’s own arresting voice.
During Morrison’s memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Oprah Winfrey chose as part of her tribute to read a favorite passage from Song of Solomon. (“If I got a home, you got one too…Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on – can you hear me? Pass it on!”). Given her masterful delivery, Oprah reminded us all of the singular and stunning gut-punch of Morrison’s writing. Again, it sent me back to the text, and I went home and re-read Song of Solomon, consuming its pages the way you do a favorite meal cooked by a favorite aunt, one you haven’t eaten in years, yet brings back with each mouthful a deep sense memory. It had been decades since I first read each of those iconic novels; I now understood I’d been bereft without knowing it, had missed the intimacy I once had with those characters and that narrator, the way you realize how much you’ve missed a dear friend only when you actually see her again.
Before the world shifted on August 5, I was busily reading newly released books while traveling on book tour for my own memoir that came out this year, The World According to Fannie Davis. I love reading while I travel, as there’s so many undisturbed snatches of time that I don’t manage to get at home: waiting at airport gates, flying on planes for hours, resting in hotel rooms before events… In those cherished moments, I read five original and compelling memoirs.
Sarah M. Broom’s National Book Award-winning The Yellow House has some of the most tactile and redolent writing I’ve ever read, is beautiful in so many ways. And it is, among other things, a breathtaking story of Broom’s own quest for both nest and adventure. Imani Perry’s Breathe was for me, as the mother of a 20-year-old black son, both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. That’s how apt and searing and moving is this love letter of a book that Perry writes to her own two African-American sons. Claudia E. Hernandez’s Knitting the Fog, winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize (full disclosure: I was a judge), is a lyrically fresh account of her life as a Guatemalan immigrant, and a story we simply haven’t seen before, not like this. Good Talk, Mira Jacob’s illustrated conversations with her son about race, manages to be both visually inviting and a captivating read, thanks to both her candor and craft. The book is so fantastic, it ups the ante for what graphic memoir can be. Serial memoirist Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance moved me for its naked honesty and deft rendering of a huge family secret, that her beloved Jewish father was not her biological father. As I’ve written my own story of a family secret, I appreciated how Shapiro shared her personal story all the while examining larger cultural implications of that revelation.
Speaking of cultural implications, I crave stories about black women’s lives that situate them within historical context, which is still so often a rarity. That’s why I was intrigued by Josh Levin’s book about the original “welfare queen” demonized by the media and politicians in the ’70s and ’80s. The Queen is a rich character-study of a complicated black woman that Levin rescues from simplistic stereotyping. It’s also an apt study of the ways black women have been demonized in society; the entire time I was reading its exhaustively researched pages, I kept saying to myself both “Of course!” and “Who knew?”
As palate cleansers, I also read two refreshing narratives that took me away from my usual choice of genres. The first is the fun thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Set in Nigeria, it’s so sly and charming that I turned the pages greedily and couldn’t stop smiling. In stark contrast, DaMaris B. Hill’s A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is a “narrative-in-verse” bearing witness to incarcerated black women across American history. That description does not do justice to the imaginative, sweeping account that Hill renders of black women she reclaims from history—some we’ve heard of, many we haven’t—who were bound in myriad ways, having lost their freedom at the hands of America’s cruelty. That she does so vis-à-vis tribute poems to each woman is a marvel. It’s a heart-wrenching read, but also a soul-stirring one.
Speaking again of Oprah, I recently re-watched her riveting performance in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as I begin to think about a film adaptation of my own mother’s story. This led me back to the source, Rebecca Skloot’s book of the same name, which remains an astonishing story of two women—Lacks herself, who’d been all but lost to history despite her own cells’ seismic contribution to science, and her daughter Deborah whose mission in life was to right that wrong. It’s a powerful corrective.
I see clearly the theme that has emerged from my reading list this year: women’s lives revealed, reclaimed, reimagined. Feels right. As does ending with our beloved Toni Morrison’s adage:
Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
Each year begins with a post-midnight call from my parents. I expect such a call this coming year, but it will be sans one parent. Perhaps when my father calls, my grieving mind will play one of those mean tricks it’s been playing since March, and for a hopeful half-second I’ll wait for Mom to come on the line with her buoyant voice full of new year’s wishes.
Last January, she wished that all my hopes and dreams surrounding my forthcoming short story collection would become real for me. She knew that my hopes and dreams—the ones that don’t involve my family members alive and prospering—are all tied up in the books I’m writing. This also means, by extension, all my hopes and dreams are tied to the books I’m reading. And what greater signifier of our eventual end is there than a TBR pile? How it mocks and taunts. How its very existence is a reminder that reading all the books one desires to read is a project no human can even possibly come close to completing.
When I think of the books I read this year, I can’t help but think of the books my mother never got a chance to read. I think of the shifting stack of books on her nightstand. I believe they are still there as if in memorial to her reading life. My mother loved the prolific romance novelist, Beverly Jenkins. Surely there were many of her novels my mother missed. I’ve never read a romance novel, know little of the genre, but after my mother passed, I took a Beverly Jenkins novel from my parents’ basement shelf, to read, but also as something tangible of her to hold since I can no longer hold her hand, but I have yet to open it.
For Christmas last year, my father bought my mother Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, but in her illness, I don’t believe she ever got a chance to read it. And there is my own book that I taunted her with in galley form. Look it exists! Hold it, but please don’t read! I didn’t want her to see the typos of the galley, to have to turn the inferior flimsy paper. The pictures are blurry in the galley and would, I knew, look better in the finished copy. I was in the midst of making small, but consequential sentence-level changes. My child had put on his clothes, but he had not yet washed his face nor combed his hair.
The final version, I told her, would be here in a few weeks. She didn’t have a few weeks. Yes, Ma, many good things did happen with my book, many of those dreams did become true, but because you are not here it all means less. I wonder if she would have enjoyed my book. She would have complained about the profanity. She would have smirked, and shaken her head at the book’s fantastical conceits and said, I don’t know where you get this wild imagination. It’s not so wild though. I want an imagination so wild it conjures her at will. That’s the sort of fantasy life afforded only to the characters in the stories we tell.
Speaking of the stories we tell, I’ve been telling myself and others that I was reading Ocean Vuong’s excellent novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous before and after my mother passed. In my recollection, as my mother faded I was comforted by the relationship between Little Dog, the main character, and his mother. I have strong memories of sitting on my bed the morning after my mother’s passing using the poetry of the prose to heal my grief-scarred mind. That memory can’t possibly be true. I picked up Vuong’s book at the AWP conference more than a week after my mother died. What’s true though is how beautifully at peace the novel made me feel when I had little but the tumult of sadness.
I don’t keep a log of my reading and haven’t for many years; though I did in the years I tried and failed to read one hundred books. I will forget some. Others, possibly belong to the previous year. My TBR pile grows. But I’m ending the year as I began it, with Maurice Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow. I read it out of excitement and anticipation early in the year and now, I read it as a professor eager to share a good book with his students. I bought my niece a copy of Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams so we could read together. And we traded e-mails about the plot twists, the characters and the general joys of the narrative. Similarly, my son and I read Jason Reynolds’s Look Both Ways and found ourselves lost in laughter. Alongside my wife, I ready Kiese Laymon’s Heavy—honesty in black, carefully laid.
Because short stories make my world go around: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (begun in 2018, I believe); Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories; Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls; Bryan Washington’s Lot; Mickey Hess’s The Novelist and the Rapper (also his A Guest in the House of Hip-Hop) and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Poetry likewise makes my world revolve, but in the opposite direction: Kwame Dawes’s City of Bones; Jericho Brown’s world-shaking The Tradition; Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast; Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon and his earlier Bastards of the Reagan Era (the cover of Felon is white and Bastards is black, and the books are like that, night and day; read them together and watch a whole world build around you). I read the autobiographies of William Wells Brown, a formerly enslaved man who went on to write several slave narratives, and I wept for the pressure white supremacy and the peculiar institution put on an individual, the way it made him write his tragedies as comedy to entertain indifferent white people. Jess Row’s White Flights redefined many of my assumptions about how race works in white fiction.
I served as a judge for the Tournament of Books and read Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Lydia Kiesling’s Golden State, Michael Odaajte’s Warlight and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s (hilarious) My Sister the Serial Killer. When Toni Morrison passed in the summer, I was reading her essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, and like nearly each time I’ve read a work by Morrison, I left elevated by the intellect of the author. This time though I also left with a great sadness—my mother was gone and the woman who is a literary mother to so many of us had likewise left the earth.
The Man Booker Prize, which “aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom,” announced its 2019 longlist.
Whittled down from 151 novels published in the U.K. or Ireland between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019, the 13-title longlist includes two previous winners (Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood), one American author (Lucy Ellmann), and one debut novelist (Oyinkan Braithwaite). We are also extremely excited that our own contributing editor Chigozie Obioma made the list!
Here’s the 2019 “Booker Dozen,” featuring 13 novels—plus applicable bonus links:
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Read our 2015 interview with Atwood)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (Read Barry’s 2017 Year in Reading entry)
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Featured in our November Most Anticipated List)
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
The Wall by John Lanchester
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Featured in our Great Second-Half Book Preview)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Read reviews of Luiselli’s other works here and here)
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma (Our interview with Obioma)
Lanny by Max Porter (Read our review of Lanny)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
The Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on Sept. 3rd.