2020: A Year in Books
2020 has been a memorable year for many reasons. The heartache. The pain. The lessons learned. I think everyone living this year is a trauma survivor. Even if you did not have anything horribly tragic happen to you or anyone close to you, just seeing other people go through something can be really difficult. As I send peace, love and light into the world during this holiday season, I’d like to take a look back at the some of the reading highlights from 2020 by sharing the top ten books that I read this year.
According to the folks at Goodreads, as of this writing, I have read 56 books so far this year. My initial goal was 40 so I have over exceeded that tremendously. And since the year is not yet over and I am still in the middle of reading a few books, I might end up reading 60 books this year.
Every single book I read teaches me something as a human and as a writer. I might not necessarily enjoy reading the book and might have some misgivings in the way a story is told, but every writer always earns my utmost respect.
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Here are my top ten books for 2020:
A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Thanks to this book the magical word mwenkanonkano is now a part of my lexicon. As I read, I felt myself immersed in the richness of Ugandan culture. Ms. Makumbi is a gifted storyteller and one thing I would always appreciate is how she wove in traditional Lugandan words into the narrative without offering a translation. I listened to an interview she gave where she talked about how as a child growing up in Uganda she read books set in the Western world and encountered words like ‘snow’ and the author did not offer a description of what it was even though she did not see snow until she was an adult. It was a call to action to writers who are writing from the perspective of a culture that is not considered the mainstream to avoid handholding readers by including glossaries or offering translations. A technique that I will be using in my own writing. Through Kirabo, Ms. Makumbi opens our eyes to another kind of Black Girl Magic that is able to transcend all the odds that patriarchy throws its way.
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman.
Twenty-six writers who are recent immigrants to the United States share reflect on their experiences and the result is electrifying literature and some unforgettable lines which will serve as a beacon for an immigrant, especially an immigrant writer, who is navigating an existence in a culture where his or hers is not the dominant one. Like this one from Jade Chang’s insightful essay titled, How to Center Your Own Story:
There’s an essay by Saeed Jones called “Portrait of an Artist as an Ungrateful Black Writer” that has been on my mind since it first came out in 2015. In it Saeed writes about the nauseating balance between feeling desperately grateful to be allowed in the proverbial room and feeling resentful that his gratefulness is expected. He also references James Baldwin’s observation, “I walk into a room and everyone there is terribly proud of himself because I managed to get to the room.”
Here’s the thing. I don’t feel like a grateful first-generation immigrant. I don’t feel like I owe my existence to any person or institution’s beneficence. I don’t feel conditional; I feel like a fact.
This was also the first book that I read and listened to at the same time and it was really powerful to listen to the authors’ voices as they read their own words which flew off the page in front of me.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
I have to admit that I came to this book because of all the buzz surrounding Ms. Wilkerson’s new book, Caste. Anytime I want to pick up a book by an author I am reading for the first time, I like to check out what else they have written and if I have the bandwidth fit it into my reading list. I was so glad I did this for The Warmth of Other Suns. As a recent immigrant to these United States, I am discovering a lot about the country’s dark history of racism. The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of a different kind of migration – one that happened within a country and is narrated from the prism of three different individuals. In a smooth cadence, Ms. Wilkerson delivers an epic tale that tugs at the heart strings and provides a necessary historical perspective for all the inhabitants of this nation, irrespective of race, color or creed. If this book does anything, it reminds us that time and circumstance can make migrants out of all of us, even within our own country.
Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu
This book is actually scheduled to be released in January 2021. But I was able to get an advanced reader copy from NetGalley and I am hoping anyone reading this adds it to their reading list for next year when it does come out. This was such an impressive read. The strength of Ms. Owusu’s narrative voice shines throughout the story and keeps you riveted. In a deeply personal story of self-discovery, she embraces the issues that accompany her multicultural identity, and her mother’s early abandonment of her and her sister.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Like many people, I picked up with Ms. Oluo’s book following the justified outrage over the murder of George Floyd. It appeared as recommended reading for anyone who wanted to make sense of what continues to be the undeniable injustice that Black people are faced living in what we have come to know are “white spaces.” This book peels back the layers of racism and takes us to the core of the discomfort that accompanies the discourse of racial injustice. I remember thinking as I read this book that it should be required reading in schools. Like Ms. Oluo points out, “conversations about race and systemic oppression are never that simple,” but they need to be had if we are going to transcend the odds and live comfortably in a post-racial world. One of the many things I loved about this book was the directness of the author. She points out issues that people are either too scared or too timid to point out but they are important and necessary. I took so many notes when I was reading this book, and each time I picked it up, I prepared to learn something new. And while it is a very instructive book, it does not come across as being too heavily didactic. Quite the contrary, it provides practical insights and tips on how to navigate an existence where racial injustice still serves as the order of the day.
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami.
This was one of the books that I was looking forward to being published this year. And while its publication was delayed because of the pandemic, it was so worth the wait. I always enjoy reading Ms. Lalami’s writing because there are so many of her experiences that I can relate to. Writing from the perspective of an immigrant, she provides wise anecdotes and memorable lines. For instance, she points out the double standard when it comes to assimilation of people living in a country they are not from. There is an expectation for Black and Brown people to conform to the norms and cultures of the White culture in order to be accepted. However, that expectation is not reciprocated when it comes to White people who can carry on as they are when they live in Black and Brown spaces. One memorable line from the book: But white privilege doesn’t mean that White people have easy lives – it simply means that whiteness does not make their lives harder.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.
Ms. Gyasi made her way to my reading heart with her debut novel, Homegoing and I was so looking forward to her next one. In her sophomore oeuvre, she explores the mother-daughter relationship and what it means to be raised by an African immigrant parent, what is expected of you, and the confusion that sets in when you are faced with different cultural nuances:
We were the only black people at the First Assemblies of God Church; my mother didn’t know any better. She thought the God of America must be the same as the God of Ghana, that the Jehovah of the white church could not not.
Narrating a story of family loss, self-discovery, parental abandonment, religious faith, and the stigma of mental health with such intimacy and clarity, Ms. Gyasi reminds me why I would read her writing again.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet.
Full disclosure: I had not planned on reading this book this year. It was one of those books that I saw, and made a mental note to add to my reading list for the future. I think it was what the millennials refer to as ‘fear of missing out’ that made me read it earlier than I had planned. It looked like every single book blogger, book reviewer, and all the other people who know about books was buzzing about this one. Then, my friends at Book of the Month Club put it up as one of the offerings for the month of June and I took that as a sign that I had to read it. I am glad I did. I read it at a time when the country and in fact the entire world was undergoing a period of racial reckoning as Black Lives Matter protests were erupting everywhere. And this story about a set of twin girls who could pass as White and one of them ends up living as a White woman, pulled me into the world of fiction in a breathtaking way but also provided a meaningful pause for reality as I came away with an appreciation for the challenges that many are faced with as they grapple with identity issues.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley.
This book had so many twists and turns, I almost got whiplash reading it. I read it over the course of one weekend. It is another one that I received courtesy of my subscription to Book of the Month Club. Ms. Foley did an excellent job in skillfully narrating a story from multiple points of view which also had quite a few meanderings. The ending was so brilliantly explosive, I had to applaud when I was done.
Where We Came From by Oscar Cásares.
On the surface, this book could be appear to narrate what happens when a family living on in a town close to the southern border of the United States, becomes unwittingly entangled in migrant trafficking. But dig deeper and it is a lot more than that. Mr. Cásares shares a coming-of-age story and the importance of recognizing and acknowledging our shared humanity especially for those who come from a place of privilege.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this year, and this was a direct consequence of the pandemic, was my ability to attend more literary events than I have ever done in my entire career. I got to listen to some of my favorite authors speak, read from their work and provide much needed inspiration as I continue on my writing journey.
Post-Script: And there are two notable mentions:
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The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Why I liked it. It is set in the 1990s. It confronts the issues of the Black identity. Black Girl Magic front and center. It shows the complicated relationships in families especially among siblings. The cover is stunning.
Ties That Tether by Jane Igharo
Why I liked it. It is set in Canada and the protagonist is a Nigerian girl. This is important because I have not come across many fictional narratives featuring Nigerians living in Canada. Another stunning cover. It immerses the reader in the Nigerian culture and explores what happens when a young woman decides to fight the odds of patriarchy.