Slave Old Man: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Dustin Kurtz


Had a fun year this past year. No real reason for it. Ever have one of those? Just a good time. Each morning waking up, feeling swell. Glad to be awake. Each day not only a joy but memorable, you know? The kind you’re proud to tell your kid about. Days where you hate to shut your eyes, put an end to them. Nights swaddled in a rich thick sleep. Brain full of health and juices, taut, toothsome, like a lychee. Just a good year. How are things, people ask. Great, you say. Things are great.

The thing with having a swell year is that you spend a lot of your time kind of trying to get yourself as close to a state of big blank noise as you can. Like, degrade your waveform down into the background hiss, you know? Get the pitch of the nothing in your head closer to the pitch of the bigger nothing. On account of how good you feel. One way to do that is to stare at your phone, mouth open as if you’re gagging. Maybe make an animal whine. Importantly, reading a book is not a good means to that end. Chalk it up in the How Books Are Bad column, I guess: They shore you up as a reading subject instead of letting you blur out. What a misdeed. Probably we should stop making them. Or, me specifically, I should. Again, due to feeling good.

I read a few books in spite of that. Enjoyed some of those. Cried at most, probably. A real softy. That’s the hell of it, right? To still be there enough that the weather can blow you around a bit. If I’m gonna live with a crow in my mouth let it have the decency to stay there. It’s the coming and going, when you sort of realize how to move your mouth again, wiggle that jaw, close that throat, but you know the damned thing’ll come back to roost, that’s what’ll get you.

One note: I work for Catapult / Counterpoint / Soft Skull. I talk about their books online. Part of that job means being fair in the mention I give to our authors. Because of that, I won’t be mentioning any of our own books here, though they make up the bulk of my reading life. There isn’t space to talk about them all, so I won’t pick and choose.

I read A Maggot by John Fowles. Had this one on my shelf for a while. Only the second of his I’ve read, after that little book about trees and fathers. This one was a real delight, an epistolary murder mystery set in eighteenth century Britain—Exmoor among other places—involving puritans, Stonehenge, sex, satanic panic, jurisprudence and a hard pivot into the fantastic. I love thinking about the mood of this alongside some of the recent work of M. John Harrison.

Reminded me, too, of parts of The Return of the Native, some of which I reread this year, as I’ve done every year lately. When he hides under the turf. The cart tucked away in a firelit cleft. The well. The mummers, outside in the cold waiting to enter. People mention Hardy’s cruelty to his characters but his greater cruelty is in reminding us again and again of the grave we miss but to which we can’t find the way back.

Another book I reread every year is After Ikkyu by Jim Harrison. These are poems, most of them toying with zen practice. They’re extremely Harrison—that is to say, they revel in a kind of needy gruffness, a deflation of romance, gentle horniness, some mourning, some birds and rocks thrown in for the hell of it. His dog sleeps on his zabuton. My admiration for Harrison is my northern Michigan birthright and I don’t expect I’ll shake it any time soon.

I read three chapbooks from speCT! Books in Oakland: Wildfires by my old colleague Will Vincent, Delphiniums by Amanda Nadelberg and selected emails by Jan-Henry Gray and enjoyed them all. The last is, ostensibly, a transcription of email from author to publisher leading up to the creation of itself, the chapbook, as an object. It engages directly with anxieties of creation, of deadlines, and—something poetry sidesteps as a rule—issues of veracity. If you work in publishing it will make you pale with inbox panic.

I read Wayward Heroes by Halldor Laxness, translated by Philip Roughton. Brilliant brilliant book. A novel that situates the heroics that inform the Poetic Edda in a more materialist context. The result is that the heroes look and speak like absolute psychopaths, go around slaughtering and robbing strangers with impunity, and act very much with an eye to fame and posterity. I’ve compared it—online—to a sort of pre-modern Icelandic Man Bites Dog.

Read Underland by Robert Macfarlane soon after. Another book dealing in graves, more explicitly so. Grave planet. 

I read We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma. Bought it at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, along with a book—I Thought I Saw an Elephant!—where you poke your finger in a hole and shift an elephant cutout around the page. Lou Sullivan was a gay transgender man and an early activist working to shape a space for men like himself, and the book pulls from his diaries, beginning as a ten year old in Wisconsin, up to his AIDS related death in ‘91. The writing is great, and, joyfully, aware of it’s own skill. The entries collected deal with obsession, politics, bodies (the sex scenes are great), medicine, longing. Easily one of the best things I read this year. My colleague Cal wrote about it here and you should read that. 

I read some Stephen Dixon—not strictly because he died, though he did die. Mourned him a bit with his real fans. Me, I’m an interloper. Never knew him. Haven’t read his most famous work. I read a lot of 30: Pieces of a Novel, which is Dixon in a more, I dunno, Frederick Barthelme mode? Maybe that’s a shitty comparison. Reread some of What Is All This? Uncollected Stories, which is sometimes in a more gonzo mood. That book is an amazing object, kudos to Fantagraphics.

Read my first Mark Fisher this year, too—his Capitalist Realism. I’ll work my way through more. No rush, he also died and his work won’t get any less relevant, even after we seize the means to forge a continued path for human survival on this planet.

When you’re having a very good year, books are also a kind of nesting doll signifier for all the things you know yourself to enjoy, or have built an identity performing enjoyment of—online. “Am I capable of liking things” is a fun question you end up asking yourself with every page of every book you read, during a good year. I mean to say that when I tell you I liked a book, let’s understand that to mean I recognized it as good, decouple it from affect, yes? 

I read Camera by Marcelline Delbecq, translated by Emmelene Landon, very Kluge. Got that one as part of a gift from my wife, a subscription to Ugly Duckling Presse’s books in translation. One of the best gifts I’ve gotten in recent memory. Another highlight from what they sent: The Winter Garden Photograph by Cuban poet Reina Maria Rodriguez, translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen. I’m flipping through that again right now and god these poems are so deeply satisfying, so controlled but a control that hints at the surreality at the core of all image. Like a dancer, taut, still form screaming abandon. Ha wait am I stumbling ass backward into THE DIALECTIC.

I finally read Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale. If I’d been paying attention enough to learn that it engages with the work of Edouard Glissant I’d have grabbed it sooner. I loved this book. I loved the generosity of the translation, the end notes, the structure, all of it. There is a page about midway through where the narration, switches from close third to first; I had to cover my face at the recognition of what Chamoiseau was doing there, the force of it. It’s a novel, too, in explicit conversation with Walcott.

I read Mark Haber’s wonderful and fun Reinhardt’s Garden, which is a bit Fitzcarraldo by way of Thomas Bernhard and Robert Burton. The Bernhard comparison, and what we mean when we toss that name around, is explicitly addressed in this conversation he had with Martin Riker.

I read Joao Gilberto Noll’s Lord, another fugue state narration that kind of bridges a gap—stylistically—between the Haber and the Chamoiseau. All the Noll I’ve read thus far thrums with dread, alienation, misunderstanding between character and world and reader and character, and this is no different. I’m such a fan.

Read a couple of books by other contributors to the year in reading this year. What’s the etiquette on commenting on those? Happily enough I enjoyed them both—Females by Andrea Long Chu and The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories by Ayşe Papatya Bucak. Females is that rare joy, a book that starts with a premise and works through consequences. And, too, I knew so little about Valerie Solanas going into it. What did I do in college? The Trojan War Museum I haven’t been able to get out of my head—tender and haunting.

I read The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner and quickly found myself a very loud evangelist for it. This is a brilliant materialist novel that begins with a kind of “Matty Groves” scene—adultery, naked swordplay—but then immediately sends you into a convent where you follow nuns trying to find ways to pay for bridge upkeep over something like 400 pages and 300 years. This is what I want in a novel. Tell me who’s bringing the firewood and why. Who milks the cows when the black death rolls through and what happens the season after? It’s great for fans of Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.

I read The Incompletes by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Heather Cleary. Chejfec has been the author of some of the most lasting scenes in my reading life—fleeting things: fences, muddy pathways, a bird, a stretch of track. The Incompletes revels in clue-ness, significance, but with no puzzle or expectation of an answer. Chejfec is one of the great writers of our age and this is no exception. 

I read Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne. It was grim and somehow—a neat trick—silent, if you know what I mean. I don’t know what I mean. Another of the best books I read this year, and a kind of answer to Zola. Ah, I see now Grove even cites Zola in their damned copy for the book. Well, it’s apt. Hi Grove. Animalia opens with a family of French peasant farmers and gets meatier and more foul over the course of decades as industrialized capitalism and mechanized death progress. It was an interesting pairing with the only Counterpoint book I’ll cite, Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring. He’s dead, it’s fine, it’s fine to talk about this one. That novel, too, opens with a peasant farmer on a hardscrabble farm in France. In Giono’s case, though, it’s a book about rediscovering communal joy and wonder, a beautiful novel, written in ‘36 when Giono was a vocal pacifist. It’s almost a direct inverse of Del Amo’s book in every way and I far preferred Animalia. I’d be curious to hear if he’s read it and his thoughts on it.

When I read, in the span of this, the good year, I read alongside a better me, one having less of a swell time, a self who is not having and has never had a very fun year. And for every moment in which I fuzzed out or slept or hid my face beneath the cool darkness of a book just to hide, he kept reading and he felt the words. He felt them, not just the echo of when another reader might be expected to feel them. He felt them and he felt happy to feel them. What a clown.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2019


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This Month
Last Month

On List


The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
6 months


The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
3 months


Normal People
3 months


The New Me

3 months


Educated: A Memoir
6 months


The Golden State

4 months


Slave Old Man
2 months


3 months


The Nickel Boys
1 month


Conversations with Friends
1 month

Both Milkman by Anna Burns and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer graduated to our site’s Hall of Fame this month, marking each author’s first appearance on that hallowed list. Dreyer’s book also becomes the first style guide to appear on a list otherwise dominated by novels, albeit interspersed with occasional rarities including at least one treatise on sharpening pencils.

Meanwhile it’s heartening to see former site editor Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State ascend toward the upper-half of this month’s Top Ten. The book belongs in your hands and on your shelves, but in order to get there it must first appear on our list. The higher it is, the farther it’s reaching, and so on.

Newcomers on this month’s list include The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Whitehead’s latest was recently featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, and surely it will soon be joined by additional titles on that massive list. (Have you read through it all yet?) It’s also noteworthy that Rooney now has two of her books listed simultaneously on our Top Ten, an extremely rare feat around these parts.

This month’s near misses included: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (Alice Munro), On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Fever Dream, The Great Believers, and The White Card: A Play. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2019


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This Month
Last Month

On List


Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

6 months


The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
5 months


6 months


The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual

2 months


Normal People
2 months


Educated: A Memoir

5 months


The New Me
2 months


2 months


Slave Old Man
1 month


The Golden State
3 months

This month Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State published in the United Kingdom and Australia, so it’s fitting that it returns to our list. Kiesling’s debut novel tracks its protagonist through some unique stresses of motherhood, but in so doing, as the author noted this week in an Australian interview, we experience the more universal stresses quite vividly:
It was my feeling when I had a very young child, as someone who reads a lot, that I hadn’t really seen the minute-to-minute of care-taking portrayed on the page, and it struck me as somewhat unfair … [In those moments] you feel like you’re in some sort of epic, but one that has never really been commemorated on the page—as with going to sea, or going to war—but it can feel that big even though it’s an experience that we think of as fairly mundane. That was certainly something I thought about when I sat down to write: trying to transmit some of how relentless it can feel in the moment.
Another new arrival this month is Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man, which recently won this year’s Best Translated Books Award in fiction. In an interview for our site, P.T. Smith spoke with Coverdale about her approach to translating the text:
My approach to translating has always been based on trying to make the English text reflect not just what the French says, but also what it means to native French-speakers, who are immersed—to varying degrees—in the worlds of their language, a language that has ranged widely in certain parts of the real world.
Elsewhere on this month’s list, Sally Rooney’s Normal People rose four spots to fifth position. This rise was so explosive it enabled her earlier novel, Conversations with Friends, to draft upwards as well, and now it ranks among this month’s “near misses.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll publish our annual Great Book Preview, so stay tuned for shake-ups to our list after July!

This month’s near misses included: Conversations with Friends, Last Night in Nuuk, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Congo, Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament, and My Sister, the Serial Killer. See Also: Last month’s list.

Best Translated Book Awards Spotlight: The Millions Interviews Linda Coverdale

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Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man won this year’s Best Translated Books Award in fiction. Shortly after the prize was awarded, Coverdale and I sat down to talk about Chamoiseau’s work and the importance of conveying tone and style in translated works.

The Millions: When did you first encounter this book? It’s the first work of Patrick Chamoiseau’s to be translated in over two decades. You translated him before, Creole Folktales (1995) and School Days (1996). Texaco was published in 1998. What happened then? Was he someone you wanted to continue translating, and it just wasn’t working out?

Linda Coverdale: The first Chamoiseau I ever read was Chronique des sept misères (1986), for a reader report, and I fell instantly in love with this astonishing unknown voice coming bang out of the blue, so when Carcanet Press offered to buy it if I would translate it, I was miserable saying no, but an honest translator knows when she is overmatched, and I wasn’t anywhere near ready to jump into Martinique. When the late and very great André Schiffrin offered me Au temps de l’antan (1988), however, I knew that I could begin to learn to handle both the language and the terroir with that one, so to speak. The New Press published it as Creole Folktales in 1995, and that was the first time Chamoiseau appeared in English. Baby steps in Creole-inflected text for me, with children’s stories, but they are clever tales of survival in a colonized land, already imbued with the mystique of the storyteller that colors all Chamoiseau’s writing, both in fiction and his essays. The Creole storyteller on the slave plantation becomes a secret agent in enemy territory, where his words must carry out their soul-saving mission in disguise…I started amassing my now huge stashes of books, notes, glossaries, Xeroxes of things Caribbean, all grist for the mill when the translator sets to work.

Then I moved up a notch with Chemin d’école (1994) for School Days in 1996. The word scratcher was born. He would carry his world and Creole tongue into the French empire of language while holding fast to his “inky lifeline of survival”—and he would beat the French at their own literary game. Ten years later, to my joy, the University of Nebraska gave me back that first Chamoiseau crush, Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows (1999), and I was ready: each time the bar is higher, but the terrain is more familiar, so the challenge can again be met and the beauty of the original in its humanity and wisdom can survive.

I’d read L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse when it came out in 1997 and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity. But it had already been bought over here, so that was that. Every once in a while I’d try to find out why it hadn’t appeared in English, but I could never learn the answer. Then The New Press returned from a buying expedition with L’empreinte à Crusoé (2012) for a reader report, but a casual remark revealed that L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse was back in play after almost 20 years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!), so I pounced on it. The New Press acquired it, and then the fun began.

TM: Has Chamoiseau been involved in the translations? If so, to what degree did you work together?

LC: I do sometimes contact an author, either for answers to nagging questions or—if the author speaks English—to ask what she or he thinks of the translation, and in a few cases, as with an author’s first book, we’ve worked together to remedy a few flaws in the original text, and that is always a happy experience.

Patrick Chamoiseau, however, is not only an accomplished novelist, he’s a prolific theoretician, one of the founders of the 1980’s literary movement of Créolité, and he has amply explained his views on this valorization of the Caribbean experience as a reclamation of life-affirming values imperiled by deep remnants of plantation slavery. He has famously championed the essential mystery and multivalence of his language and been sparing in his specific textual explanations, but his translators receive a basic glossary, and whenever I have contacted him, as I did with School Days and Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows, he has helped me with difficult interpretations. My m.o. has always been to do absolutely as much as I can on my own before “bothering” an author, and Chamoiseau, who is now well-known and busy in a million ways, wrote L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse over 20 years ago.

So I definitely bless the internet: Fighting through that jungle while working on this short novel over many, many months honed my research skills to the point of tracking down even the author’s own recondite sources, and I can honestly say that at length—great length—I finally found the answers to my gazillion questions and then called it quits.

I trust that Chamoiseau is pleased to have had this novel be a finalist for a 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of both a French-American Foundation Translation Prize and a Best Translated Books Award in 2019. And I’m delighted.

TM: What is your background with Creole, or with Martinique? It’s clear from the language, the copious notes, and your afterword that this translation is thoroughly researched, but it also feels like lived experience.

LC: My “background” with Creole is simply the love my family has had for languages and books: The idea was to read early, read widely, and read beyond your years. My parents spoke French, I learned French as a child in France, studied German on my own because my mother spoke it, studied Latin and Spanish in school, tried to learn Russian on my own, earned a doctorate in French literature, studied Italian (messed up by my Spanish), and failed risibly at Dutch (screwed up by German and English). Before the Internet took hold, I think I knew the location of every little library in New York City with a dictionary of any French Caribbean Creole, and translating works by the Haitian authors Lyonel Trouillot and René Philoctète gave me more background. I also translated the Martinican writer Raphaël Confiant, whose magisterial dictionary of Martinican Creole is itself a teaching tool of unparalleled complexity.

If you love languages, you get a feel for them and instincts that can’t be measured but which operate as if on their own, and despite the hazards of sometimes-chaotic spelling and regional variations—if you keep at it, you can track things down. I searched for the meaning of one word for months, off and on, and finally found telling clues in a Polish Ph.D. dissertation on School Days that quoted a passage including the word, and my vestigial Russian told me only that the word was an obscenity, but that was enough to dissect it into separate Martinican Creole words, allow for the optional adhesion of the definite article to a noun, in its diminutive form, and bingo: I had my word in English. Confirmed by an amused native speaker.

And NYC is full of Caribbeans: I found Martinicans delighted to help my sleuthing, even relatives of Édouard Glissant who were invaluable in their discussions of his often gnomic writings. In short, this translation was a major adventure, one that at times confounded me but in the end came out just as I had hoped.

As for the “lived” experience, I’ve often gone to the Caribbean, and over the years have been to most of the Guadeloupe Islands: Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, Les Saintes, Marie-Galante, La Désirade, and along with the rain forests of Costa Rica in particular, they’ve been models of sensory overload: sunlight shattering through the lush tropical overstory, standing inside a massive hollow silk-cotton tree listening to the invisible life all around—these things take root, branch out into words, and imagination takes things from there.

It may seem strange, but I no longer really want to go to Martinique after all these years. I’ve grown used to the island in my mind.

TM: In addition to your afterword and endnotes, you open the book with a translator’s note. These are all valuable and interesting additions to the book, and I was happy to have them. What do you see their role as? Are they essential for a reader, or additional?

One of the things that makes Slave Old Man stand out is the original used both French and Martinican Creole. The French itself is not “standard” either, is it? In your opening note, you explain the biggest translation choice you made. The Creole is mostly left in the original, where context explains, or you use combinations, like “djok-strong.” For the most complicated words, you use the endnotes. In between is where the more unusual choice is: “once there was an old back man, a vieux-nègre, without misbehaves or gros-saut orneriness or showy ways.” So words are glossed, almost doubled. It works. It keeps the reader aware of the boundaries of Creole and French, and it fits the tone, where there is already repetition, variation, quick hits of commas, and lists. Did you consider or even try out other routes? What really made this one win for you?  

LC: My approach to translating has always been based on trying to make the English text reflect not just what the French says, but also what it means to native French-speakers, who are immersed—to varying degrees—in the worlds of their language, a language that has ranged widely in certain parts of the real world. Francophone literature is dear to the French, and the writings of Marguerite Duras, for example, born and raised in French Indochina, have more dimensions in their eyes than they do in ours. Unless we do our homework. But who does, before picking up a book?

As a translator, I’m responsible for providing information encoded in the text that is, or might be, more easily accessible to a French reader, and to do that as discreetly as possible. Slave Old Man is a short but extremely complex and dense text. The creolization of the text was so widespread that it had to be maintained without disrupting the story, and frankly, you’ve already outlined the reasons why I did what I did: individual words could either remain untranslated, like gnomic little lumps in the text, or be translated into English, in which case they would simply vanish (not an option), or they would have all been translated in a huge glossary, which would have been a royal pain for the reader. Therefore, they were dealt with in situ, and as you said, this was (literally) fitting.

As for the translator’s note and endnotes, I found them necessary, but any reader is free to ignore them, although ignoring the endnotes would leave big lumps everywhere. The publisher then suggested that I add something about Chamoiseau and Glissant, and that became the afterword—again, optional, but very helpful in context. Here I might add that The New Press could not have been more supportive of my take on this translation, and dared to publish a most unusual text. Because even the “straight” French is quite like an idiolect: Chamoiseau writes in…Chamoiseau.

TM: This is a book that lives or dies on tone/style. The man at the center is a fascinating figure, but it’s the mythical tone, the unique combination of a sort of detached perspective and an immediate, pressing urgency, that makes this a special translation. A significant portion of the book is a mastiff, with an almost magical aura, chasing a slave, who is painfully human, but also already almost a legendary figure, both to other slaves and his master. Are there places in the novel, moments, lines, recurrences, that helped you lock this tone down? The full introduction of the mastiff was one for me, as a reader.

LC: Every reader reads a different story, and will react in a personal way to the text, but my interpretation is locked to the French. And that belongs to Chamoiseau. I try to match his tone, his style, and there’s no strategy to that: I try to stay out of the way. Read; write. I do have favorite moments, of course, they’re everywhere, but as an example of something modest but telling in the seismic balance of the novel, I’d cite page 13, at the end of the first chapter, where the plantation is introduced, its inhabitants sketched…and suddenly chaos sets in. For hours, the master is at a loss, cudgeling his brain, when like a Fate emerging from the shadows to announce the arrival of Destiny, “a clairvoyant négresse advances to tell him, in the sunny flash of her teeth, ‘It’s that one who’s escaped his body, oui.’” That’s it, that’s all, that is her one moment in this tale: the old slave has escaped, the master comes out of his trance—and realizes that the mastiff has been howling for hours! A howling that in Creole (défolmante) is “dis-in-te-gra-ting” the master’s world. The black crone speaks “dans l’embellie de ses dents”: an embellie, in French, is when the sun breaks through clouds, and the author uses the word five times in this tale. On page five, after announcing that the Master adores the savage mastiff because it always catches runaways, Chamoiseau tells us that “The sudden sunshine of his smile [embellie de sourire] breaks through only for this beast.” And a few pages later, we find the tables are turned, as the lowest of his slaves bares her teeth at him in a “sunny flash.” His smile, her teeth: that’s the plot in a nutshell. The second chapter now returns to the beginning, to tell the story from inside that mythical space you described. All a translator has to do is follow Chamoiseau’s lead, carefully, and it’s up to the reader to pay attention.

TM: Now, call it a spoiler if you want, but eventually, the novel switches to first person. The balance between mythical distance and realist immediacy shifts. Both elements are still there, but in a different way than before. It’s a masterful change, by both Patrick Chamoiseau and you. Even the way Creole is used after seems to be a little different. Did you find this a particular challenge, or something that came with your overall conception of the translation?

LC: Again, Chamoiseau leads, I track him, I follow. The moment when the narrative voice shifts to “I” for the runaway is dramatic, but the dog and its master are shifting as well. This book is infused with the spirit of time, and holocaust, and man’s inhumanity to man, and the heroism of great souls in surprising places, and the sacredness of art that, like the Stone, keeps life alive even in death. All the faults, injustices, oppressions, and destructions our species embodies flourish in the institution of slavery, and when the old slave breaks free to run back in time and into nature to shelter in the Stone he becomes, with all his imperfections, a lightning flash of hope, the “crystal of light” the amazed mastiff glimpses on page 90. Slave Old Man has the sublime arc of a rainbow, which leads not to a treacherous pot of gold, but to the Stone, a vision of chaos, acceptance, and redemption.

TM: Do you feel any pressure with role or responsibility translating from cultures with colonial histories like Martinique? And what should readers know about Creole and literature? Where is the movement now? This year the longlist had a book from French and Martinican Creole and one entirely from Haitian Kreyòl, Drézafi. You even discuss the latter in your note.

LC: As I said in the afterword, there is a vision of language and the world that sees the Caribbean as a self-creating model for justice and beauty, to push back against colonialism and imperialism in the widest sense. Control, exploitation, oppression—these are elements of our daily life, really, and they’re writ large in misogyny, racism, all the prejudices we harbor. I haven’t translated a single book that was all sweetness and light; six of my 80 translations were about genocide. Not including the ones about the two World Wars. My responsibility is to the French text, and as long as I’m attuned to this text, and familiar with its terrain, that takes care of everything.

That said, the extreme situation of colonialization still affects much Caribbean literature, for the local slave cultures were exclusively oral, and Chamoiseau makes no bones about his devotion to the orality and the potpourri nature of Creoles, born of the mix of African voices with the particular European language of an island’s white ruling class. His mantra: “I sacrifice everything to the music of the words.” A codicil might well be: “Screw the gaze of The Other: I wander where I please!” So did Shakespeare and Rabelais, and the more the merrier.

And Caribbean Creoles, looked at in their origins—the rubbing together of languages that create new ones—are a model of how language itself lives on. There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but the possibilities are infinite. I don’t teach anymore, and would never presume to speak about “Creole and literature,” but I think it’s safe to say that once-marginal voices all through our societies are speaking up, and loudly—some of them, at least—for tolerance and the opening up of all the world’s cultures, which is a welcome and wonderful thing. And we read constantly about the fading and death of languages around the globe, so any books in any Creoles are welcome saviors of the fragile worlds they sustain.

And the Winners of the 2019 Best Translated Book Awards Are…


The 2019 Best Translated Book Awards were given to Slave Old Man and Of Death. Minimal Odes this evening at a ceremony at the New York Rights Fair in Manhattan.

Slave Old Man, written by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale, and published by The New Press, won for fiction. Of Death. Minimal Odes, written by Hilda Hilst, translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin, and published by co-im-press, took the prize for poetry.

Slave Old Man is translated from the French and Creole. It is the first BTBA win for a book from the French. It is also the first victory for an author from Martinique.

Of Death. Minimal Odes is translated from the Portuguese. It is the second time poetry from Brazil has claimed the prize, after Rilke Shake won the 2016 award.

It is the first victory for both translators, and for The New Press and co-im-press. Linda Coverdale and The New Press were previously finalists for Jean Echenoz’s The Lightning.

Here is the jury’s statement on Slave Old Man:
In turns biblical and mythical, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man is a powerful reckoning with the agonies of the past and their persistence into the present. It is a modern epic, a history of the Caribbean, and a tribute to Creole languages, all told through the story of one slave old man. Linda Coverdale’s translation sings as she beautifully renders language as lush and vividly alive as the wilderness the old man plunges into in his flight to freedom. It is dreamy yet methodical prose, vivid, sensual but also a touch strange, forcing you to slow down and reread. Thoughtful, considered footnotes provide added context and explanation, enriching the reader’s understanding of this powerful and subversive work of genius by a master storyteller. Slave Old Man is a thunderclap of a novel. His rich language, brilliant in Coverdale’s English, evokes the underground forces of resistance that carry the slave old man away. It’s a novel for fugitives, and for the future.
And here’s the jury statement on Of Death. Minimal Odes:
The first collection of Hilda Hilst’s poetry to be appear in English, Of Death. Minimal Odes is masterfully translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin. Hilda Hilst’s odes are searing, tender blasphemies. One is drawn to Of Death in the way we’re drawn to things that might be dangerous. These are poems that lure readers well beyond their best interests, regardless of whatever scars might be sustained. In language that is twisted, animalistic, yet at times plain, Eglin reveals another layer in the work of this Brazilian great.
The fiction jury included Pierce Alquist (BookRiot), Caitlin L. Baker (Island Books), Kasia Bartoszyńska (Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman (freelance book critic), George Carroll (, Adam Hetherington (reader), Keaton Patterson (Brazos Bookstore), Sofia Samatar (writer), Elijah Watson (A Room of One’s Own). The poetry jury included Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Laura Marris (writer and translator).

We announced the longlists and finalists here at the site earlier this spring.

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the living winning author and the translators will each receive $2,000 cash prizes. Three Percent at the University of Rochester founded the BTBAs in 2008, and since then, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $150,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA. For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter. 

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Finalists


The Best Translated Books Awards today named its 2019 finalists for fiction and poetry. The award, founded by Three Percent at the University of Rochester, comes with $10,000 in prizes from the Amazon Literary Partnership.

In the past seven years, the ALP has contributed more than $150,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

This year’s BTBA finalists are as follows—and be sure to check out this year’s fiction and poetry longlists, which we announced last month.

Fiction Finalists

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Poetry Finalists

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tanella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi(Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

The winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 29 as part of the New York Rights Fair.

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Longlists

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Celebrating its 12th year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards named its 2019 longlists for both fiction and poetry.

Announced here—with a write-up tomorrow from BTBA founder Chad Post at Three Percent—the lists include a diverse range of authors, languages, countries, and publishers. It features familiar presses—Ugly Duckling Presse, Coffee House, New Directions—along with presses appearing for the first time, such as Song Cave and Fitzcarraldo.

Nineteen different translators are making their first appearance, while last year’s winning team of author Rodrigo Fresán and translator Will Vanderhyden returns. The lists feature authors writing in 16 different languages, from 24 different countries. The books were published by 26 different presses, the majority either independent or university presses.

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000. The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on Wednesday, May 15.

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Fiction Longlist

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

A Dead Rose by Aurora Cáceres, translated from the Spanish by Laura Kanost (Peru, Stockcero)

Love in the New Millennium by Xue Can, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Wedding Worries by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen and Lo Dagerman (Sweden, David Godine)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Iran, Europa Editions)

Dézafi by Frankétienne, translated from the French by Asselin Charles (published by Haiti, University of Virginia Press)

Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter)

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Russia, Deep Vellum)

People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle (Argentina, And Other Stories)

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Argentina, Coffee House)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Mexico, Coffee House)

Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Angola, Biblioasis)

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugo Ono, translated from the Japanese by Angus Turvill (Japan, Two Lines Press)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Codex 1962 by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Poland, Riverhead)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai (Japan, FSG)

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Pierce Alquist (BookRiot), Caitlin L. Baker (Island Books), Kasia Bartoszyńska (Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman (freelance book critic), George Carroll (, Adam Hetherington (reader), Keaton Patterson (Brazos Bookstore), Sofia Samatar (writer), Ely Watson (A Room of One’s Own).

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Poetry Longlist

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tenella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Dying in a Mother Tongue by Roja Chamankar, translated from the Persian by Blake Atwood (Iran, University of Texas)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

Scardanelli by Frederike Mayrocker, translated from the German by Jonathan Larson (Austria, Song Cave)

the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied (Denmark, Open Letter)

Nioque of the Early-Spring by Francis Ponge, translated from the French by Jonathan Larson (France, Song Cave)

Architecture of a Dispersed Life by Pable de Rokha, translated from the Spanish by Urayoán Noel (Chile, Shearsman Books)

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Laura Marris (writer and translator).

For more information, visit the Best Translated Book Award site, the BTBA Facebook page, and the BTBA Twitter. And check out our coverage from 2016, 2017, and 2018.

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced


The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2018 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The finalists include 31 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:

Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Man Booker Prize)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (part of our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story by Richard Beard
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home by Nora Krug
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (read our review)
The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list)
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview)

Here are the winners of the three stand-alone awards: Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to book culture. Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on March 14, 2019.

A Year in Reading: Jordy Rosenberg


Sometime early in 2018, one morning of the long “bomb cyclone” in New York City—the kind of day where the dawn doesn’t break, but mizzles down through the wind and fog, pearling the air to a flat winter white for a few short hours until Night tips her inkwell and dark bleeds out again—I finally opened Félix Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus Papers, a book that had sat undisturbed on my shelf for three years.  

I was finishing a novel at the time, so I wasn’t reading other novels.  Anti-Oedipus Papers are Guattari’s notes to his collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, in preparation for their opus, Anti-Oedipus.  But what madness these notes are: raw philosophy as dream diary, griping and sniping about the Parisian intelligentsia, particularly Jacques Lacan, Guattari’s mentor (but not for long), and quite a bit of agonizing about various love affairs.  Out of this chaotic stew, they created Anti-Oedipus.  I’d like to say that you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were very much in love, but that would not be simple enough of a claim.  Rather, you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were the very kind of desiring-machine of which they once wrote. Guattari excreted, Deleuze plugged into the orifice, metabolized the ooze, and a book was born.

Or perhaps Guattari mizzled his light into the undifferentiated night, created an enveloping blankness, and it was into this air that Deleuze tipped his inkwell.

In any case, I needed language that would scramble the omnipresent crush of narrative logic that had subsumed my writing life.  And I needed, too, a book that would unsettle my too-closely held presumptions about sex, desire, and the psyche.  If I couldn’t have my own presumptions unsettled, then neither could my characters.  And consequently, neither could my (projected) reader.  I needed to read a book out of order.  And so I opened The Anti-Oedipus Papers to page 343 to find: “Something about love makes me not be this thing that is at an impasse. Two monads produce a third.  A new taste for the world. . .Analysis is about making the impossible out of the déjà vu.”  The point of analysis (and, I thought to myself then, of writing?) was not to affirm the return of the repressed, but to make the old narratives illegible—and thus to create an opening where there had not been one before.

Speaking of machines, Kay Gabriel’s poetry is something else I read in 2018 when I was studiously avoiding novels.  I feel quite sure that her chapbook, Elegy Department Spring: Candy Sonnets, and her poems in Salvage Quarterly (which, in full disclosure, I was lucky to conduct an interview with her about) are poem-machines, nano-surgeons of the synapses.  My brain was altered in the reading of them, and my understanding of transsexuality will never be the same.  These are the poems I need—not so much to understand my condition as a trans person, but to un-understand the too-easy narratives about it.  It’s not pretty.  I don’t want it to be.  Why should we/why should poetry always have to be pretty?  Gabriel’s poetry gives us the body and desire plowed through with the particulars of late-capitalist logistics and the omnipresence of Amazon-driven transport systems.

When I returned to novels, I did so by way of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man–a novel that tells in inexorable, prismatic, impossible prose the pursuit of an enslaved man–a “mineral of motionless patiences…[h]is eyes are neither shining nor dull but dense, like certain backwaters struck by lightning”–by a slaveholder and his mastiff, “black, gleaming into a lunar blue…its muscles bulged like lava bubbles; the pitiless face, unbaptized.” Never have I read a book that so miraculously combines propulsive forward motion with such crystalline, heart-stopping language at the level of the sentence.  Usually the latter–if overfull–overwhelms the former.  Not so here.  Not even close to so.  That Chamoiseau manages to combine these two, moreover, with a metafictive aspect is to my mind nothing short of total alchemy and brilliance.  The reading of this book is an event, and it deserves to be ritualized.  This ritual does not have to be luxurious or expensive, but it should be undertaken with seriousness.  You do not need to go far.  You do not need to go to Europe or even to a cabin in the woods.  Go into a closet with some pillows and read.

Actually, on this question of metafiction: I believe it is a mistake to detail the rise of contemporary metafiction (if you prefer, “literary postmodernity”) like settling a bank account, and yet we have so many scholarly books dedicated to just this approach.  Perhaps an actuarial account of literature is all our hellish world deserves, but we could also read–or reread–the section on “The Solar System” in Eileen Myles’s Cool for You, as I did in 2018, for a more organic view.  For some of us, the love of science fiction means we cannot bear to conduct a forensics on the genre; we do not want to know its molecular secrets, and for this reason we do not write in that genre.  This diversion from the forensic results, instead, is a particular kind of metafiction that has not yet been properly analyzed in academic accounts.  Metafiction as a form of desire. A paean.  Is there such a thing as celestial ekphrastics?  Yes there is: “Pluto is holding a bowl of ideas that were formerly tropical, like ice cream and fruit.”

We cannot talk about science fiction without discussing the long history of racism in science fiction.  In 2018, the great author Samuel Delany republished his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”–which conducts a number of crucial arguments (which have only become both more salient and more complex) regarding the perceived split in the field between Afro-Futurism and subgenres such as cyberpunk–alongside a new novella, The Atheist in the Attic.  I had been eagerly awaiting this novella since Delany had made reference to it on a panel at NYU in 2017.  The novella would concern cannibals and Spinoza, he said.  Cannibals and Spinoza??  I could hardly wait.

The Atheist is wonderful.  It, like all of Delany’s work, is dense with significance and extraordinary in its prose.  It, like all of Delany’s work, constellates questions of embodiment (indeed, excrement) and high philosophy.  In my opinion it returns Spinoza and those figures of what has been termed the “radical Enlightenment” to their rightful context: the odiferous living world of the pulse, the body, and the socius.

In 2018 I finally read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.  I had been putting this off.  I believe now that this resistance had to do with a fear of falling in love.  But now I have fallen in love and I am a lunatic proselytizer for this book which does not need another proselytizer, least of all me.  Still, I will say that this book is joy, absorption and technical mastery incarnate.  It gave me one of the very best weekends I had in 2018, just me and it.  And without producing any spoilers I will say that once I arrived at the last third of the book, I found myself inhabiting the single best rendition of utopian longing and the fleshly, compromised, and deeply joyful flashes of affect associated with it that I have ever read.  I did weep.

The book that I adorned with the greatest number of bookmarks and post-it notes in 2018 is Dionne Brand’s Theory.  In structure, a tripartite story of three love affairs conducted by a PhD student trying to finish her dissertation.  The book is an exacting, detail-obsessed limning of the contours of these lovers, and of the interior textures of relationships from the perspective of someone who (sound familiar?) is hamstrung by a preponderance of abstract thought. The book is a non-dialectical progression through the three sections, a series of repetitions-with-a-difference of the Oedipal and supra-Oedipal arcs of love.  It maintains an unflinching gaze on the limitations of its narrator, who withholds beloved bedtime poetry readings from a girlfriend simply due to the ordinary, relatable experience of forgetfulness, postponement, and indeed the creeping pettiness of love.  “We are all,” proclaims the narrator, following a citational litany of the very poems she could not read to her lover (which, in litanizing, she in fact “reads” to us, her anonymous audience) “small people in relationships.”

Theory, it turns out, is not only the title of the book, but the pet name of the narrator given to her by an ex-lover: “’Theoria. . .’ that is what Odalys called me.  ‘Teoria, you are too much in your head.  Before you can do something you think it out of existence. . .You lack an anchor; you lack a thing that you love.’”  And this is because theorizing something is not the same as loving it.  Just as writing about a lover is not the same thing as loving her.

One could say that Teoria is stuck; even she believes this: “My lovers never change.  It is as if I’ve loved the same person all these years.”  But then there is a secret, fourth love story sequestered in Theory.  A love story that isn’t written as a narrative arc, as are the first three, but as citations interspersed throughout the text.  “It has become necessary to locate social memory outside the body,” muses a pair of what might be characters/editors/authors, cited in a footnote as “C. Sharpe/Teoria.”  Why is relocating social memory necessary?  To unfreight the body of the histories it bears.  This, too–to recall the weep-worthy moments in Jemisin–is a utopian horizon: “[b]y relocating memory outside the body rather than insistently stigmatizing the body through the reproduction of particular historical moments,” we open out to something else.  This relocation is the site of the sequestered fourth love story: non-narrative, metafictional, citational, collective.  Love, after all, is not writing the lover, but thinking together with her.

I read many books in 2018, and especially after having been freed of writing my own novel, I experienced an intense appreciation for and awe of the sweat and labor of other writers.  I returned renewed to reading this year, and I loved all these books deeply.  But of all the books I read in 2018, Dionne Brand’s Theory is the book that read me.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient​ and Divisidero among his other works,​ this new novel ​from Ondaatje ​is set in the decade after World War II. ​When their parents move to Singapore, ​​​14-year-old​ Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, ​are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they ​become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, ​they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when ​​their mother returns months later without their father, but​ ​gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel ​begins to uncover the story through​ a journey of​ facts, recollection, and ​​imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)

Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)

Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)

Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all.  (Anne)

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)

Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories.  That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. (Il’ja)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)

Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)

Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)




The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)


The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)


Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)

Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)

Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)

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