This year, I sought literature that reverberated with tenderness and rage. Reading afforded me much-needed quietude and pockets of silence in these increasingly fascist times, amidst a relentless, raucous political commentary that we can’t afford to turn off. We can’t afford ignorance, but we do still need spaces to dream, to reimagine the world, to counter erasures of stories we deserve and need to know, the ones omitted from the dominant culture’s record. As writers, we write ourselves and the stories we never saw ourselves in, the stories that are the most terrifying to tell. I craved intimate work that took me to subterranean, secret, otherworldly, historic, ancient, and syncretic corners of literature, where borders and identities dissolved into hybrid forms. I wanted to read work that made me feel connected to my body, my senses, and collective memories.
I Lalla, the utterances of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, translated by poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote, were a portal into another time, when a rebellious woman renounced her family duties to become a devotee—and yet, I read this work in the context of the present-day political turmoil not only in India-occupied Kashmir but throughout India, where student protestors are being violently beaten and tear gassed by the police because of their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will allow the Indian government to send people without paperwork to detention camps. Reading Lal Ded today, each line is as much a wound as it is a balm.
I revisited iconic feminist works that have never felt more prescient, including Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, which interrogates the U.S.-Mexico border: the history of white supremacist imperialism and indigenous genocide, feminist theory, and femme divine mythologies. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive documented the heartbreaking dissolution of a family on a road trip across these desert borderlands, and I ached the entire book through, holding its heart—the children savagely separated from their parents at the border—close to my own. Another spectacular novel set in the desert, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, masterfully weaves a polyphonic tapestry of narrators sharply divided by race, religion, class, desire, and aspirations, unfurling the story of a Moroccan immigrant killed in a hit-and-run. Imagining a Muslim family’s tragedy in the Mojave Desert felt like a necessary complement—one that I’ve never read before—to the post-9/11 literature set in New York City. Lalami’s structure summoned another masterful work of art, Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I loved how both of these novels draw the desertscape, in all of its solitude and endlessness and metaphors. Desertscape forms over millions of years, a steady denuding of the earth into monochromatic wasteland, where everything is wildly alive, but camouflaged, in plain sight.
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments opened a radical door of perception into early 20th-century black women’s intimacy as revolution, how their love and queerness and kinship was the heart of their survivorship against societal and state violence. Femme in Public, a poetry collection by ALOK, a nonbinary transfemme poet, performance artist, educator, and cultural theorist, probes the urgent question that I find myself wondering every time I show up to the page: What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world? Each poem is a dart of truth puncturing the systemic, colonial violence of the gender binary, one of the first ways we learn to erase ourselves.
After Toni Morrison’s passing, I read her collected essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard, each night before bed, unmoored by the breadth and brilliance of her mind. Her nonfiction is a clarion light that has never felt more eternal, and it made me want to read her fictive masterpiece Beloved, for which I made a perfume (for an event in her honor) composed of notes in the book: sweet grass, salt water, rose, and blood cedar. There is no other writer who threads the olfactory with such elegant and devastating precision. Similarly, Arundhati Roy’s collected nonfiction My Seditious Heart reignited my blaze for her intellectual fire and activism and infinitely readable voice—and the collection illuminates her decades-long commitment to freedom and social justice. This work is a nonfictional journey between her two great works of fiction, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House is a heart-wrenching, hybrid work that moved me to my core as a survivor. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no greater feeling of solidarity than being able to bear witness to another survivor’s experience, and in the wake of so many public reckonings with abusers, to read a work that goes inward so inventively was a total wonder. When I think of how I learned to read and write, healing or holding space for trauma were not a part of the writer’s project, but the old rules don’t seem to matter as much to me anymore, we cannot afford to hold our tongues. Fariha Róisìn’s poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost bares and bears everything, and it felt like I’d found a book waiting for me my whole life, a way of seeing that reflects the world as I’ve lived in it, as a Bangladeshi, brown, bodied, Muslim femme person.
Poetry and essay are both forms that Hanif Abdurraquib renders with such elegant melancholy and beautiful rhythm, and I loved his poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, as well as his essay series on the Paris Review, Notes on Pop, about songs and memory. My last book for the year will be published in 2020, My Baby First Birthday, a poetry collection by Jenny Zhang. It’s a radiant and resolute work that had me questioning everything, like what life means when you didn’t ask to be born; how we must translate ourselves for whiteness and patriarchy through our trauma, which can feel like selling ourselves out when we are never replenished by a system that asks us to sacrifice so much. And yet, these poems are a soothsaying for the future we want to live in, where we understand the innate beauty of our planet, of ourselves, our friendships, where we forgive our own transgressions, remembering to stay tilted towards the light.
I’ve read far less this year than I typically do. Not by choice, really, but by circumstances. There just didn’t seem to be enough time, but when is it ever enough time to read all of what one sets forth to read? So, the little reading I did get to do really stuck with me. Maybe what they say about less is more is true.
Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, was beautiful devastation in prose. I raged, I thought, I cried. I read it all on one cold Saturday, devoting the day to those words, taking my time to feel all it does so masterfully. Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls were another set of memoirs that were everything to me. Each one I set aside a full day to read. These writers demanded such time and attention from me, and I am glad I made time for them.
I read the New Directions reissue of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel Malina. A very strange book, an oddly composed and written book, but one that is deeply moving for how it represents obsession and how those we love the most can hurt us the most. I am hooked on Bachmann and all I look forward to in 2020 is reading more of her work.
I encountered essays and reviews by Tobi Haslett and I am downright obsessed. Haslett’s fabulously incisive and bitingly spot-on analysis of contemporary literature and art production I can read for days.
Took the time to reread books that continue to awe and inspire me like Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother; the poems, plays, and essays collected in Assotto Saint’s unfortunately out of print Spells of a Voodoo Doll; Justin Torres’s We the Animals; and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda gave me a poetic and stunning memoir about his search to find out more about his grandfather who lived through Japanese internment in the United States. I continue to recommend this book to everyone and anyone.
Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is an impressive book of literary criticism, cultural analysis, and memoir that raises many important questions about whiteness and literature in the United States. My mind is still reeling and working through all the ideas it generates.
One book that I will never forget from this year is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. A marvelously written—innovative in its use of research—and just an all-around radical book we all should be reading. It’s a book that gave me genuine hope this year.
Not enough reading for me this year, but what little I did has left its lasting impression and a multitude of stunning writers to continue reading on into 2020, and beyond.
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For The LA Review of Books, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reviews Saidiya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Crossings, Beautiful Experiments. The book, which Taylor describes as “a radical, genre-defying examination of the lives of ‘ordinary’ young Black women” in the early 20th century, is an exercise in understanding these women’s lives without sensationalizing, idealizing, or dismissing their experiences. Hartman’s subjects, Taylor writes, are found “on the periphery of archival refuse,” and she celebrates the “black city-within-a-city” that they helped create in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in particular. Ultimately, Hartman is interested “in the multitude of ways that Black women ‘made a way out of no way,’ whether through flight, migration, work, sex, singing, dancing, screaming, and all of the social and cultural innovation born from pure defiance and a refusal to do what you are told.”