Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Valeria Luiselli, Toni Morrison, John Williams, Sandra Newman and more—that are publishing this week.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about American Spy: “Wilkinson’s unflinching, incendiary debut combines the espionage novels of John le Carré with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Marie Mitchell, the daughter of a Harlem-born cop and a Martinican mother, is an operative with the FBI in the mid-’80s peak of the Cold War. Marie is languishing in the bureaucratic doldrums of the agency, a black woman stultified by institutional prejudice relegated to running snitches associated with Pan-African movements with Communist links. All this changes when she is tapped by the CIA to insinuate herself with Thomas Sankara, the charismatic new leader of Burkina Faso, in a concerted effort to destabilize his fledgling government and sway them toward U.S. interests. Now the key player in a honeypot scheme to entrap Sankara, Marie finds herself questioning her loyalties as she edges closer to both Sankara and the insidious intentions of her handlers abroad. In the bargain, she also hopes to learn the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of her elder sister, Helene, whose tragically short career in the intelligence community preceded Marie’s own. Written as a confession addressed to her twin sons following an assassination attempt on her life, the novel is a thrilling, razor-sharp examination of race, nationalism, and U.S. foreign policy that is certain to make Wilkinson’s name as one of the most engaging and perceptive young writers working today. Marie is a brilliant narrator who is forthright, direct, and impervious to deception—traits that endow the story with an honesty that is as refreshing as it is revelatory. This urgent and adventurous novel will delight fans of literary fiction and spy novels alike.”
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lost Children Archive: “Luiselli’s powerful, eloquent novel begins with a family embarking on a road trip and culminates in an indictment of America’s immigration system. An unnamed husband and wife drive, with their children in the backseat, from New York City to Arizona, he seeking to record remnants of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache, she hoping to locate two Mexican girls last seen awaiting deportation at a detention center. The husband recounts for the 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter stories about a legendary band of Apache children. The wife explains how immigrant children become separated from parents, losing their way and sometimes their lives. Husband, wife, son, and daughter nickname themselves Cochise, Lucky Arrow, Swift Feather, and Memphis, respectively. When Swift Feather and Memphis go off alone, they become lost, then separated, then intermingled with the Apache and immigrant children, both imagined and all too real. As their parents frantically search, Memphis trades Swift Feather’s map, compass, flashlight, binoculars, and Swiss Army knife for a bow and arrow, leaving them with only their father’s stories about the area to guide them. Juxtaposing rich poetic prose with direct storytelling and brutal reality and alternating narratives with photos, documents, poems, maps, and music, Luiselli explores what holds a family and society together and what pulls them apart. Echoing themes from previous works (such as Tell Me How It Ends), Luiselli demonstrates how callousness toward other cultures erodes our own. Her superb novel makes a devastating case for compassion by documenting the tragic shortcomings of the immigration process.”
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Source of Self-Regard: “Some superb pieces headline this rich, if perhaps overstocked, collection of primarily spoken addresses and tributes by Nobel laureate Morrison. Many are prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment. For example, Morrison alludes in 1996 to controversy at the U.S.-Mexico border, writing that ‘it is precisely ‘the south’ where walls, fences, armed guards, and foaming hysteria are, at this very moment, gathering.’ She focuses, of course, on the issues closest to her heart: racism, the move away from compassion in modern-day society, the often invisible presence of African-Americans in American literature, and her own novels. Some of her strongest pieces are the longest: for example, her talk on Gertrude Stein, and her two essays on race in literature, ‘Black Matter(s)’ and ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken’ are must-reads. The collection is organized thematically, which is helpful, but because the pieces jump around in time, dates would be a valuable addition to the essay titles. And while it is no doubt important to create a comprehensive collection of such a noted figure’s writings, the book, which includes 43 selections, can seem padded and overlong at times. Nevertheless, this thoughtful anthology makes for often unsettling, and relevant, reading.”
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mother Winter: “In this bold if uneven memoir, Shalmiyev, former nonfiction editor for the Portland Review, writes of being a motherless Russian immigrant, addressing the woman who ‘left me for the bottle long before my father took me away to America.’ Stitching together lyrical essays, fragmented narratives, and critical commentary, she reflects on ‘Elena. Mother. Mama,’ whose absence led her to seek ‘surrogate mothers for myself: feminists, writers, activists, painters, ballbusters.’ Loosely linear with discursive asides, Shalmiyev shares memories of her mother’s drunken promiscuity, her own neglected childhood raised by an enigmatic father, and their emigration from Leningrad to New York in 1990. After her arrival in America at age 11, the narrative becomes more chronological and focused. Shalmiyev describes her college years in Seattle as a sex worker; a fruitless trip to Russia to find Elena; and her subsequent marriage, miscarriage, and role as mother; she intersperses these accounts with musings on art, feminism, Russian history, and the work of Pauline Réage, Anaïs Nin, and Susan Sontag (whose son was raised by his father, ‘purposefully, unlike my mom, so that she can think clearly and write’). Shalmiyev’s prose can be brilliant, but at times overreaches (‘Father never got wintery feet’ instead of, simply, cold feet), and the book’s ragged continuity stalls any momentum. This ambitious contemplation on a child’s unreciprocated love for her mother trips over its own story, resulting in an ambiguous, unresolved work.”
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cassandra: “Shields (The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac) repurposes the Greek myth of Cassandra in this alluring, phantasmagoric story of a clairvoyant secretary working at a secret research facility during WWII. Eighteen-year-old Mildred Groves frequently has strange, dark dreams and visions that she can’t escape. After running away from her home in rural Washington, she joins the Women’s Army Corps and applies for a job at the mysterious Hanford research facility on the Columbia River. Hanford was established to support the war effort, but no one understands what is being made in the large compound. Mildred cautiously tries to keep her head down, making friends and avoiding unwanted attention from male colleagues. However, she’s prone to bouts of sleepwalking and having disturbing visions of skeletons and corpses, which become more ominous when she overhears snippets of information revealing that the facility is processing plutonium for the atomic bomb. Shields incorporates a strong feminist undercurrent, and the constant objectification of and casual workplace violence against the women of Hanford often makes for uncomfortable reading. Unfortunately, narrative suspense will be lessened for readers with basic knowledge of WWII history or the Cassandra myth. There is little redemption in Mildred’s story, a conclusion foreshadowed from the start. With a plucky, charismatic narrator and vivid scenes incorporating the history of a real WWII facility, Shield’s novel digs into the destructive arrogance of war.”
The Heavens by Sandra Newman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heavens: “In Newman’s stellar novel (following The Country of Ice Cream Star), a woman’s ability to travel back in time in dreams—specifically, to 16th-century Britain—morphs into a world-altering liability. Kate, an art school dropout living in Brooklyn in 2000, has since childhood entered alternate worlds as she sleeps; but the dreams shift and intensify when, in her 20s, she meets and begins dating Ben, a grounded PhD student. Almost nightly Kate becomes Emilia, a pregnant Italian Jew from a family of court musicians, who escapes plague-ridden London in search of a means to save mankind. When Emilia becomes acquainted with melancholy actor Will, the resulting butterfly effect alters countless details of the present, from the president to the death of Ben’s mother. As Kate’s dream relationship with Will becomes increasingly involved (and hers with Ben twists into something strained and painful) visions of a post-apocalyptic world pepper her thoughts. While the world shifts, Kate must untangle the significance of her dreams and their implications for the future. Newman’s novel expertly marries historical and contemporary, plumbing the rich, all-too-human depths of present-day New York and early modern England, and racing toward a well-executed peak. But it’s the evolution of Kate and Ben’s relationship that serves as the book’s emotional anchor, making for a fantastic, ingenious novel.”
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Death Is Hard Work: “Khalifa’s novel compellingly tackles the strain of responsibility felt by a man in war-torn Syria. After his father, Abdel Latif, dies in hospital, 40-something Bolbol gathers his estranged siblings Hussein and Fatima and, with the corpse in the back of Hussein’s minibus, sets off from Damascus to honor Abdel’s deathbed wish to be buried alongside his sister in the village of Anabiya. Though the distance is short, the quartet’s quest is frequently interrupted by violence and corrupt military checkpoints, forcing the journey to stretch over days, during which time Abdel’s body bloats beneath its burial shroud. Khalifa (No Knives in the Kitchens of This City) punctuates repetitious roadblocks with segues detailing the histories of all four characters. For example, after taking refuge at the home of a former girlfriend, Bolbol reminisces about his father’s own pursuits of an old flame; and later, Hussein’s teenage abandonment of his parents and siblings crops up while their adult counterparts contemplate the purpose of fulfilling Abdel’s request. The narrative choice to summarize conversation indirectly, rather than placing the dialogue directly on the page, might distract some readers. Nonetheless, the novel is at times harrowing—the family flees wild dogs and faces masked guards—and serves as a reminder of the devastation of war and the power of integrity.”
Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Rutting Season: “In Smith’s unsettling debut, characters must confront the most basic, animal sides of themselves as they navigate crisis and tragedy, whether it is a husband’s sudden death, workplace tension, or a police face-off. In the title story, Carl’s boss Ray is constantly giving him a hard time, and one incident in front of Ray’s work crush may be the final straw. ‘The Someday Cat’ and ‘You the Animal’ make for an intriguing pair of stories—though they both center on the same climactic moment, they are told from two opposing viewpoints. In ‘The Someday Cat,’ Janie’s siblings are being put up for adoption one by one, and so her mother brings home a kitten to placate the children who are left. In ‘You the Animal,’ readers meet Jared, who’s about to be married and on the verge of quitting his job at the Department of Children and Families, which is where readers learn there’s something a little more sinister at play at Janie’s house. At their best, Smith’s characters skate the razor-thin line of brutality in a way that’s both chilling and compelling, although secondary characters too often come across as one-dimensional. Still, this collection proves Smith is an uncommonly talented writer with a particularly sharp eye for the serrated edge of human nature.”
Northern Lights by Raymond Strom
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Northern Lights: “Strom’s challenging debut follows recent high school graduate Shane’s roundabout search for his mother. When his uncle kicks him out of the house in the summer of 1997, Shane goes looking for his mother, who abandoned him years before. He tracks her to the small, rust belt town of Holm, Minn., where the locals react suspiciously to his androgynous looks and long hair. He falls in with erratic drug dealer J and angry, spiteful Jenny, who introduce him to increasingly serious drugs. When not getting high with them, Shane incurs the unbidden wrath and terrifying threats of wannabe Klansman Sven Svenson and pursues a confusing sexual relationship with Russell, who only seeks Shane out when drunk. Despite Shane’s plans to leave Holm in the fall for college, he becomes attached. When he finally gets a lead on his mother’s whereabouts and leaves town to pursue it, Jenny’s desperate measures to help her drug-addled mother lead to horrifying consequences. Strom’s insightful navigation of family trauma, sexual identity, and small-town despair blends with his chilling depictions of drug abuse. This bleak, unsentimental novel will resonate with readers who like gritty coming-of-age tales.”
I began my reading year with a book both beautiful and sad for me: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson, whose memorial I had the honor of earlier attending. The recollections by family and friends who knew him as more than an author reminded me of our collective loss on his passing. I’d only been one of the many devotees of Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams, and this final short story collection, so electrically alive from characters’ animal struggle to keep precarious balance, made me feel the loss even more. The book’s titular story ends with this line: “Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.” The magical something is what I think I’m looking for every time I open up a book.
I found some semblance of that magic in several books I read this year. Sometimes it came from alchemies created from dislocation and alienation. Eula Bliss’s essay collection Notes from No-Man’s Land unsettled me with its juxtapositions, each a portrait of unequal prices paid in American society. She awed me, weaving historical facts on telephone pole proliferation and lynching; custody trial accounts and recollections of black and white childhood dolls; and Bliss’s own experiences of belonging and eroded community.
Sometimes, the distance between headlines and lived experience that a book could collapse moved me. I read Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli around the time that immigrant families seeking asylum were being cruelly separated. Luiselli’s use of immigration questions as structure lets human stories supersede the bureaucratic form meant to reduce and process away humanity. What was happening in another presidential administration shed light on the current and, in turn, re-clarified the absurd cruelty for me, a far luckier immigrant from another age who still remembers day-long, labyrinthine lines outside of immigration offices, waiting in the Florida heat for nothing to get resolved—come another day, next.
And sometimes meanderings through the vastness of our world did the trick. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, defies any insistence on single-minded narrative propulsion and character-building. Instead, the book builds on fragmentary digressions, possibly fictional and not quite nonfictional, morphing from one theme to the next across history and space. A meditation on the nature of storytelling leads to a calculation of the collective height of trees used to build a dreamed town. An interstitial mentioning an old Maori mourning tradition of preserving loved one’s heads follows a son’s letter imploring an Austrian emperor to release the stuffed corpse of his African father and precedes the continuing story of an obsessed anatomical preservationist. Tokarczuk has compared the form she has woven in this book to constellations. It’s ultimately the reader who gazes at the otherwise empty dark to take in the glow of these narratives and find the shapes of humanly creatures and myths.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Earlier this year, I read several great books on migration, borders, and identity-making in the United States: Valeria Luiselli’s powerful and riveting Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, which follows Central American refugee children as their cases are heard in federal immigration court in New York; Francisco Cantú’s quiet and disturbing The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of the four years he spent as a Border Patrol agent in the Southwest; and Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera, which brilliantly blends memoir, poetry, and critical analysis and offers an original view of hybrid culture at the border. These books deepened my understanding of the border experience—an experience I share with millions of others—and gave me valuable context for interpreting the current administration’s disastrous immigration policies.
Much of my energy in the spring was consumed with line edits for my new novel. I’ve always found this to be a very delicate time, when I’m finally finished with the writing, yet not quite ready to let go of the book yet. So whenever I needed a break, I picked up trusty old favorites like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Toni Morrison’s Jazz or Thornton Wilder’s A Bridge of San Luis Rey and read a few pages at a time.
Later in the year, I read and greatly admired Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which explores how war is lived and remembered—or misremembered—by Vietnamese and American people. I read Terese Marie Mailhot’s gut-wrenching memoir Heart Berries in one sitting and thought about it for days afterward. I also loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a deeply affecting book that I wanted to read again immediately after I finished it.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
My reading choices this year were far more focused than they have ever been—rage has a way of focusing you, as does getting the Grace Paley Teaching Fellowship at The New School. I spent most of the year reading in preparation for my course, “Traditions in Non-Western Feminism,” and began by breaking up the regions and peoples and continents that I wanted to explore: East Asia, Africa, South America, the Indian subcontinent, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and so on. Then I started reading:
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ; “Forgive me once again if I have re-opened your wound. Mine continues to bleed.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang; “She laughed. Faintly, as if there were nothing she wouldn’t do, as if limits and boundaries no longer held any meaning for her. Or else, as if in quiet mockery.”
Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli; “In the United States, to stay is an end in itself and not a means: to stay is the founding myth of this society.”
Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez; “Made a battlefield, your body has become acutely vulnerable.”
Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur; “In the spring her entire body was covered with new leaves. It was a good spring. She learned the water’s song.”
In choosing these books for the course, I had thought to show my students (and myself) how the struggles of women in the non-Western world are unique, unexplored, silenced. We read, discussed, dissected. We asked questions of each other. Has there ever been an instance in Western literature of a woman turning into a tree? Why don’t any societies exist (outside of some regions of Tibet) in which a woman takes multiple husbands? How would one take the Terms & Conditions to which we agree whenever we sign a contract and apply them to the body, the boundary of a woman? How many orifices does a woman have?
These questions and more swirled around the room. We debated and we laughed and we cried and we shouted and sometimes we grew quiet. Quiet, quiet. If you say this word softly enough, the wind rushes back into the room, and seas surge, and you can hear the birds. You can hear the sigh of a woman who is not even in the room. Who is on a far continent. Or is she?
Toward the end of the semester, literature did what literature does. Our hearts began to beat in tune. And then we began to understand that yes, each story was unique, perhaps even unexplored, but not one women, not anywhere, was silent. They wrote landays, they pierced their bodies, they wore their abayas inside out. Silence is capitulation; it refuses to be an option for many.
As conversation deepened, as awareness grew, here is what else I realized: it had been so very naïve of me, that breaking up into regions, peoples, continents. It had been so very fustian. Every day gone by, every book read, made me see that the distinctions I had made were arbitrary, elusive. There was only the human journey, the one where we all cry out with mouths full of dirt, the one where we all wear laurels for a crown. Why the segregation? There was only us. As the astronaut Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said about his time in space, “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.”
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
This year, I read a lot on my phone. That’s a habit I’ve picked up from working gigs where you stand a bunch (watching kids on a swingset, watching adult children park their cars). Some folks don’t vibe with that, but those folks don’t pay my bills, and it meant I could read in doctor’s offices and train stations and airports and noodle bars and passenger seats. I read Alexia Arthurs’s How to Love a Jamaican, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Nik Sharma’s Season, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here, Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us, Katie Williams’s Tell the Machine Goodnight, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Okura’s That Blue Sky Feeling, Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, Allegra Hyde’s Of This New World, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, Anita Lo’s Solo, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and the re-issue of Naoki Urasawa’s 21st Century Boys.
At a few points this year, I got inexplicably sick. I had strange professional developments. I traveled and I mostly stopped smoking but I drank an aggressive amount of milk tea. I gained weight. I cried, for the first time in years, after hearing Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” cover, and then again, a few months later, over something else. I also succumbed to joy. And there was, I think, this year, a pervading numbness, which isn’t even a little bit unique, so I won’t riff too much on it, and reading definitely didn’t eliminate or even diminish that ennui, but still, books provided their own heft of equal or greater emotion, and that more or less countered the void.
So I read at crosswalks. I read at the auto shop. I read in front of the cashier, waiting (praying) for my card to clear. I read Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and all of the lyrics for Mitski’s “Be The Cowboy.” I mourned The Awl, for months, and read all of the remembrances. I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Luís Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I reread Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, because I do that every year, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, because I think I’ll start doing that every year. I reread Diego Zuñiga’s Camanchaca, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and all of Paul Asta’s poems. I read everything Jia Tolentino wrote, and I reread this essay by Anshuman Iddamsetty, and this one by Vinson Cunningham, and this story by Chris Gonzales, and this story by Sheung-King. I read Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Kate Gavino’s Sanpaku, Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband, Chris Ying’s You and I Eat the Same, Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, Sohui Kim’s Korean Home Cooking, Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain.
But, honestly, the main thing that stuck with me in 2018 is having read prayers. Or hopes. Whatever. I spent a good while this year in Tokyo, sort of visiting friends and sort of researching a long thing and sort of fucking around and sort of clearing my head, and a thing I did often was ride the JR line to the Meiji Shrine. It’s in Shibuya, a short walk from Harajuku Station, by this big-ass Gap and an Adidas. In the afternoons, a guy played the Hang in front of the shrine’s arches. When you walked through the gravel, past the barrels of sake, after you’d stepped under the shrine’s pillars, you could sort of amble your way to the arches, and that’s where plenty of people, from all over, left notes on votive tablets beneath an overflowing tree:
I pray my boyfriend’s parents accept me
Hopefully she comes home this year
I pray that the new job brings in enough money for the operation
This year I hope that she finds peace
I pray that his death brings us together
Stuff like that. Deeply personal things, like you’d find in a diary or a post-it stack. Some had smiley faces and cartoons. Others were written in cursive. I spotted French and English and Hiragana and Hangul and Spanish and Chinese and Arabic, and they all hung together, tied to their altar with string, sort of shaking in the wind, and if you sneezed they’d shift a bit before settling back into place.
Most afternoons, I rode the train from my place to see them. It took about 20 minutes. This year began with the absence of hope, and every week that’s passed seems to have added to that refrain, but folks had still taken—had actually bought, with currency earned by their labor—these little hunks of wood, and then they’d written down their hopes and dreams and wants, despite everything. Despite the world. That’s a little radical, when you think about it. That’s a lot of beautiful, when you think about it.
And, in a lot of ways, I think the books I read in 2018 elicited a similar emotion. No one asks us to write. There’s no assurance that anyone will see what we put down. If your advance is big enough, or the publication is halfway decent at social media, or your publicity team is swift enough, or if you’re young and white and you catch a wave then maybe they will. But they probably won’t. And we hang these words up anyway, because we have to, and we hope that someone will see them, although most of us will never know if they do, so they’ll just carry them around in their heads, the same way we will, and that’s how we’ll build a life together, just tacking up prayers.
But anyway. I’ve thought of those notes often. I hope some of them came true.
The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2017 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 30 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (The Millions’ review)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Improvement by Joan Silber
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Read our interview with Ward)
Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Read our 2017 interview with Gessen)
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon
The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel
Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo
Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir
Earthling by James Longenbach
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Recommended by Contributing Editor Nick Ripatrazone)
The Darkness of Snow by Frank Ormsby
Directions for Use by Ana Ristović
You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History by Camille Dungy
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Review)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News by Kevin Young (Read Young’s Year in Reading)
For the three stand along awards, here are the winners: John McPhee won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to letters and book culture, exploration of widely varying topics, and mentorship of young writers and journalists. Author and critic Charles Finch won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. The John Leonard Prize—for a first book in any genre—went to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15, 2018.
On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
I’ve been making lists since my father died in September. Lists of the things I need to do, lists of the things I need to finish, lists of business expenditures, lists for tax-season preparedness. When my father was dying in the hospital I read poems to him. The breathing tube prevented him from speaking to me, but he would move his head from side to side or groan or widen his eyes to let me know he was cued into the recitation. Sometimes I wanted to be sure he really liked what I was reading so I would ask, “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” That’s when he would smile. We read the Quran, and we read poetry, which is to say, I watched my father die for two weeks and for two weeks I read poems.
I read other books this year. I devoured Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, Renee Simms’s Meet Behind Mars, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration, Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Natalie Graham’s Begin with a Failed Body, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends. That’s one list. A list.
Then there are the poems I read. They are not many. I read them to my father, and I read them for myself. I read them for strength. I read them because I have faith.
1. Ntozake Shange’s “my father is a retired magician”
In the shower I’d say the few lines I have memorized to myself. It was a kind of affirmation. Maybe the poem was just stuck there, in my head, but saying the words made me feel like my father would never die.
this is blk magic
you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/
2. Surah 93: Ad-Duha (The Daylight, or The Dawn, or The Glorious Morning Light)
This is my favorite surah of the Quran. I get up before fajr and think about my father. I never sleep anymore. I watch the sun come up, I listen to Aretha Franklin’s Rare and Unreleased Recordings. “Fool on the Hill” is a perfect track. I love the way she fades into the last verse of the song. “The fool on the hill/ Sees the sun going down/ And the eyes in his head/ See the world spinning around.”
I think about being an orphan. This new world where this is no father for me.
3. “These Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
My father loved this poem. “What did I know, what/ did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Muslims do not bury their dead in caskets, we do not have wakes or memorials, there are no headstones. We use flat grass markers, a white shroud, oils. We pray, and we leave. I wore a red dress with pink flowers. They were the only flowers there. Muslims don’t bother with adornment.
4. Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Alone”
Like Lee, I see my father everywhere. In paintings, in books, when I slice fruit, little black kittens, fat tabby cats, at Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit, in Arizona reading a Terrance Hayes poem dedicated to Ai. Sometimes when I am hurting, after I’ve cried, I say, “Oh, Hamzah.” I want him to know I’m getting his messages. I want him to know I see.
5. “38” by Layli Long Soldier
The first poem I read after my father died. Evidence that the world continues to turn, but I do not.
Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.
Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.
The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”
The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”
But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.
Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.
Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.
For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace with Running Room, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”
These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.
The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)
The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.
Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.
I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.
Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.
Image credit: Unsplash/Duc Ly.
Translation, while often misconstrued as neutral, is an inherently political act. It can amplify a voice, especially when it’s rendered into English, which is almost always the dominant language with the wider reach. While I like to point this out as a literary translator myself, the reality settles in when I speak with a novelist who, for the past year and a half, has been working as a legal interpreter.
Valeria Luiselli had never translated before working at an immigration court with Central American children seeking sanctuary in the U.S. There, she would discover that presenting the stories of these children accurately and convincingly to the court in English is their only chance of escape from violence or insecurity at home. But, unlike the literary translator, she found she had limited control over the narratives she was given. Between the children’s words always lurked a heavy silence, a much longer story that wasn’t being told.
Luiselli’s book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, out now from Coffee House Press, is an attempt to record, in English, what didn’t get translated. For while she also writes books in Spanish, she had no trouble deciding which language to write the one distilling her experiences in court. The versions of these children’s stories that do already exist in English, in the media primarily, are incomplete and oversimplified, and the ones packaged for the courts are not much better.
It was in 2014 when she first learned that tens of thousands of children were turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol after arduous, perilous journeys from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other places. This would widely become known as an immigration crisis that to this day continues, where unaccompanied children have been fleeing escalating violence across Central America.
The numbers are staggering and the circumstances harrowing. To make these journeys, children travel on the backs of trains and cross deserts with limited water supply, where they also run the risk of being kidnapped and murdered. If you are a girl crossing the border from Mexico, there is an 80 percent chance that you will be raped; many take birth control as a precaution. Too many of these children, some as young as two years old, are sent back. Mexican children don’t stand a chance, as they can be deported immediately under U.S. policy if Border Patrol determines they meet certain conditions.
At the time she realized this, Luiselli, who is Mexican, was in the process of applying for her green card after having lived in the U.S. for six years. Her own burdens in navigating the exceedingly confusing and expensive immigration system (which I, too, am familiar with) seemed trivial in comparison to these children’s. She reached out to her lawyer at the time and asked how she could volunteer in court. It was then that she ended up interpreting at an immigration court in New York City, and found she was badly needed: the federal government faced an overwhelming number of children—80,000 between October 2013 and June 2014—and shortened the time they had to find legal representation: 12 months to 21 days. Luiselli’s job was to interview and translate the children’s answers at an initial screening, which were then reviewed by volunteer organizations to determine whether there were viable claims against deportation. If not, no lawyer was assigned and the child was eventually deported.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is at once a deft exposition on the injustices of immigration law, the long, bullying history of U.S.-Central American relations, and the obstacles and politics of translation. The book is structured around the questions she had to ask each child she interviewed. The first, “Why did you come to the U.S.?”, is already too complex—one not even Luiselli can fully answer for herself. The answers—persecution and abuse at home or the hope to reunite with a family member in the U.S.—come in pieces, not neat, linear narratives. Reticent children are often too embarrassed by their circumstances or worried about betraying their family to give complete answers. And no matter how many times Luiselli asks questions, “[t]he children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, no end.” Their stories, she suggests, are partly broken because their lives are.
But the children don’t always know how to report their hardships. Luiselli notes that she must engage in a double translation: in addition to Spanish, she translates the language of children. In an interview with two young sisters, they evade questions, contradict themselves, and pretend to understand when they don’t. “When did you come to the United States?” she asks. “I don’t know,” they say.
And where did you cross the border?
I don’t know.
Yes! Texas Arizona.
Following this exchange, Luiselli concludes in near defeat, “For children of that age, telling a story…a round and convincing story that successfully inserts them into legal proceedings working up to their defense, is practically impossible.”
The cruel irony is that while these children’s predicaments are clear, they become less so when trying to fit them within the borders of the questions asked. In one of many imaginative attempts to translate the peculiar language of the courts, Luiselli likens the interview process, officially called a “screening,” to a movie projection: the child becomes “a reel of footage,” and the legal system “a screen, itself too worn out, too filthy and tattered to allow any clarity, any attention to detail.” The translator, then, is nothing more than “an obsolete apparatus used to channel that footage.” The stories become “generalized, distorted, appear out of focus.”
“In court my dilemma is how to not cheat. That is,” she said impishly when we met, “in favor of the kid.” She had to exercise restraint when those two young sisters, for instance, gave insufficient answers, saying, as a child is told to, that they never got into trouble at home, were never punished, and only played. “What I needed to hear, though I didn’t want to hear it, was that they had been doing hard labor…that they were being exploited, abused,” Luiselli writes, visibly irked and ashamed that these are the realities that would grant the children asylum or special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status.
As a legal interpreter, she feels “powerless,” “hands and feet tied.” She cannot control the words that flow from the children’s mouths, and she has to listen even when it’s too painful. Her job is exhausting and emotionally demanding. Particularly, she struggles to provide an answer to her curious daughter whose demand, “Tell me how it ends, mamma,” becomes a common refrain throughout the book, because most of the children slip from her reach after the screening.
There is one notable exception, however: the first child Luiselli ever interviewed, 16-year-old Manu, from Honduras, who Luiselli grows fond of and who we follow sporadically. His story enlightens the geopolitical context for these mass migrations; through him we learn more about MS-13 and Barrio 18, two gangs that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and that despite the U.S. administration’s effort to deport the members involved, have only grown in numbers across the country. Manu, exceptionally, brought with him across the border a physical piece of evidence that would earn him the attention of some of the finest pro-bono lawyers in the city: the copy of the police report he filed in Honduras complaining of MS-13 members who lurked outside his high school gates. But when Manu arrives in Long Island, he finds “Hempstead is a shithole full of pandilleros, just like Tegucigalpa.” In other words, his problems followed him. Even though “the media,” as Luiselli remarks with typical sense of humor, “wouldn’t put Hempstead, a city in New York, on the same plane as one in Honduras. What a scandal!”
Through the media we’ve learned of these stories but also failed to understand them. Luiselli, in seeking “to rethink the very language surrounding the problem,” tries to translate the masked language of news sources, including The New York Times, pointing out their propensity to refer to children as “illegal immigrants” rather than “refugees;” of problems to be rid of rather than confronted.
She concludes that “the only thing to do is tell [these stories] over and over again…in many different words,” but she wrote this before Donald Trump was elected president. Circulating these stories, particularly in English-language media, could have adverse consequences. With the so-called “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrant youth in the U.S., flagged by the current administration, Luiselli wonders what more attention would mean for these Central American kids who have gone relatively unnoticed. “Will this government target them more if they become more visible?” she asked me.
The last impression Luiselli leaves us with is unexpected: three photographs where Manu poses for the camera, hanging by his arms from telephone wires, “practicing the art of flight.” In the image, his body is completely dark and silhouetted, preserving his anonymity, as lawyers had advised—Manu is not his real name, even though he wanted Luiselli to use it. He personally wouldn’t mind being seen; he might prefer it. But the pictures we’re offered of these children, just like their translated words, struggle to gain focus.