The end of 2017 closes out another landmark year for literature by writers of color. From explosive immigrant narratives to wry reflections on contemporary racial politics in America, these books continue to push boundaries and expand the horizons of our literary culture. The AAWW staff has chosen their favorite books from this year, we hope you love them as much as we do.
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
I’ve never read a book as lush or visual as Harmless Like You, a novel that begins each section from artist Yuki’s point of view with a description of a certain paint color. Even these are extravagant and wonderful, from zinc white: “Once called Chinese White, the whites of your eyeballs, the white of weddings, the white of ghosts, the white of antiseptic creams. Lightning white,” to carmine: “Raspberry jam in a viscous glob, a crying child’s cheeks, pickled plums on a bed of white rice, a drunken nose, helium balloon hearts.”
Exceptional prose aside, what I felt most potently about this book was how correctly it portrayed loneliness. I’ve never read something that gets right the experience of being lonely, especially in such an enchanting and visceral way. It’s not just loneliness in the form of solitude, but loneliness in the form of being the only one, of being unrecognizable, of being unable to connect—and of not quite understanding why you can’t, of feeling like you have the links but you can’t make them meet. I’ve read this novel twice now, each time feeling seen, painted, and undeniably understood. (W.W. Norton)
—Kyle Lucia Wu, Margins Fellow
So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen
Reading So Many Olympic Exertions makes me feel like I’ve been Being John Malkovitch‘ed into the head of a wonderfully obsessive and grieving observer. It’s an experimental novel in form, jumping from first person to third person, journal entries, idea fragments, and always maintains a close, sometimes claustrophobic connection to the narrator. And I love it! She writes about social anxiety, staying up late at night going deep down YouTube video-holes, and struggling to define success for herself. So much of this book feels familiar.
So Many Olympic Exertions is a semi-autobiographical memoir about a ph.D student struggling to finish her dissertation amidst anxiety, a friend’s suicide, and deep self-doubt. Woven into this story are anecdotes about athletes winning and losing, pushing themselves past their breaking points. They’re bizarre and heartbreaking, yet awe-inspiring at the same time. These anecdotes are the anti-ESPN that only shows deleted B-roll footage covering the absurd, the psychotic mindset, the emotional abuse it often takes to be an Olympic athlete. And much of what makes this book compelling isn’t in the main character’s quest to finish her dissertation, but how the sports anecdotes are used to jump into meditations on happiness and success, contextualizing the narrator’s own life but also reflecting existence in general. We are all human beings obsessed with narrow definitions of achievement running ultra-marathons, and at any moment we can get dizzy, veer off course and collapse, forgetting why we ever started running in the first place. (Kaya Press)
—Rob Rusli, A/V Producer
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell
I’m usually reluctant to care too much about “relatability” and “likability” when reading fiction. And at first glance there’s not much to like about Helen Moran, the delusional, meanly oblivious anti-heroine of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. She is pushy with strangers, neglectful with her loved ones, bad with children, but oh, I liked her so much. And when a well-intentioned detour on her way to her adopted brother’s funeral leads to a ever-multiplying spate of bad decisions within a few minutes, and she asks herself, “How do we live with ourselves? There must be a way, but no one has ever told me,” I could not have related more. The novel begins with the death of Helen’s brother, whose suicide drives her into a darkly comical and obsessive investigation into his final days. Cottrell’s unsteady walk along the edge of the abyss was taken up in a few of my other favorites from 2017: Danzy Senna’s New People, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which I read for the first time this fall. This was a good year for books and a bad year for almost all else, and Sorry to Disrupt the Peace was a bright spot. “TO LIVE AND LIVE ON,” Helen shouts to herself when she screws up. It is exactly the kind of perversely sincere mantra—and novel—I needed this year. (McSweeney’s)
—Yasmin Adele Majeed, Assistant Editor
And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania de Rozario
Lyrical and detailed, Tania de Rozario’s And The Walls Come Crumbling Down is evocative of the alienation one experiences as a queer person in authoritarian Singapore. Reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson’s poetic style, de Rozario’s writing is also about the sweetness of desire and the joy of creating family structures outside of heteronormativity. (Math Paper Press)
—Axel Jensen, Designer
The January Children by Safia Elhillo
Safia Elhillo’s debut poetry collection The January Children is named for “the generation born in Sudan under British occupation, where children were assigned birth years by height, all given the birth date January 1.” The collection contemplates the idea of home and examines the complication of sitting between two cultures, languages, and geographies. Every poem in this collection is breathtaking, and my descriptions cannot do them justice. Please go to a bookstore and turn to page 22 and read “& maybe it is too easy to blame / mortality on our capacity for love / the death that is putting / your breath in another’s body.” Think about how it might feel “to be young & always / sick at the mercy of / something meant / to immortalize us.” (University of Nebraska Press)
—Jean Lee, Development Coordinator
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I bought my copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at a Newark Airport newsstand this July. I remember feeling excited to see it on a display of bestselling paperbacks—part of me hoped my purchase might send a signal to the airport book buyers that they should stock more titles by writers of color. I was still reading Homegoing in mid-August, when white supremacists stormed into Charlottesville, VA. As I followed the news, I felt the long, brutal shadow of the slave trade that Gyasi so skillfully renders in the novel extend its tentacles past the last pages of the book and well into our present moment.
The multigenerational novel begins in the late 17th century on the Gold Coast, in what is now Ghana, and follows members of a family, diagramed in the first few pages of the book, across eight generations. We toggle between the two sides of that family tree, between what we imagine are two very different fates: two half sisters who have never met, one of them married off to a British slave trader and the other sold into the slave trade. Each chapter takes on a single character’s story and we are gifted compassionate, heartbreaking glimpses of lives lived across several centuries—from histories of colonialism in West Africa and plantation slavery in Mississippi, to convict labor during the Jim Crow Era all the way up to the present day.
It’s an incredible feat to squeeze that much history into a slim novel and to bring so many rich characters to life. At moments I was breathless and in tears, at others I paused to dig deeper online into the histories in which Gyasi situated her chapters.
Earlier this week, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.. In a single day’s visit I managed to cover just three quarters of the bottom-most floor of the museum that chronicles an early history of the transatlantic slave trade to the end of the Civil War. The story told across that period of time was an intentionally global one—placards and videos emphasized the ways European colonial powers amassed their wealth from the slave trade, or how the Haitian Revolution inspired subsequent slave revolts in the United States. So many references at the museum brought me back to Homegoing, whether it was the story of West African rulers who collaborated with slave traders to avoid being enslaved themselves, the unimaginable conditions aboard slave ships crossing the Atlantic, the gendered violence enslaved women experienced on plantations, or the way convict labor replaced slave labor after the Civil War. One of the most important contributions of Homegoing is its insistence on shedding light on all these histories through such searing, intimate portraits. I am certain I’ll be recommending this book for years to come. (Vintage)
—Jyothi Natarajan, Editorial Director
The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, trans. Allison Marin Powell
This slow-burning, bittersweet story unfolds in a sleepy second-hand shop in Tokyo. The merchandise here is a random selection of pre-loved items, and the staff are equally rough-edged and mismatched. Eccentric Mr. Nakano runs the establishment without much regard to good business sense, abetted by his artist sister Masayo, the taciturn Takeo, and a young woman named Hitomi whose life seems to be in a holding pattern. Hitomi, who is also our narrator, drifts restlessly from one thing to the next, not even certain what it is she is searching for.
Translator Allison Markin Powell renders Hiromi Kawakami’s terse prose expressively, conveying the lethargy and stasis of the shop without it ever feeling dull. Customers come and go, buying and selling an assortment of objects that borders on the absurd, from erotic photographs to a bowl with a curse on it. Meanwhile, Masayo dates an entirely unsuitable man, Mr. Nakano has an affair with the owner of a fancy antique shop, while Takeo and Hitomi may or may not be experiencing mutual attraction. Without wanting to give too much away, one of these couplings gives rise to what might be my favorite ever literary sex scene: “We had sex, briefly.”
At one point, Hitomi has a brush with life in the regular world and muses how normal people are unable to fully be themselves. “It was as if everyone doled themselves out in such small portions. Never completely open, not all at once.” What space is there in society for individuals who can’t or won’t contort themselves into the inflexible shapes demanded of them? Hitomi and the other denizens of thrift shop are unable to discover lasting solutions to their problems, but they find each other for a time, and perhaps that is enough. (Europa Editions)
—Jeremy Tiang, Asia Literary Editor
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers begins with the disappearance of eleven-year-old Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, who is an undocumented Chinese immigrant from Fuzhou. Deming, distressed and grieving, is adopted by white professors who rename him Daniel Wilkinson and move him to a small town in upstate New York. The novel brilliantly examines the horrors of deportation and ICE arrest. Told from two perspectives, the reader sees the devastation of deportation from both Polly and Deming’s point of view. The depiction of Polly is glorious and goes against the convention of immigrant mothers in literature: she is aggressive, ferociously stubborn, and perpetually dissatisfied. The reader sees the complexity of difficult decisions—even in the wake of unyielding love for Deming—when Polly is imprisoned and then deported.
The Leavers also examines the trauma of abandonment and assimilation as the story follows Deming. As a child, he pretends that his new home is another planet to cope with his grief, which is never fully addressed by his adoptive parents. Ko decides to make Deming ignorant of the reason for his mother’s leaving. This decision to make him unsuspecting of the real reason for her departure begins a critical discussion centered on trauma without brutality. Well-meaning people adopt Deming, but his problems in adulthood show the impact of persistent and subconscious discrimination, displacement, and systematic racism. (Algonquin Books)
—Jean Lee, Development Coordinator
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, shortlisted for the National Book Award this year, is a novel I wished would never end. Spanning four generations of a Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1910s and then in Japan, Pachinko manages to do so much that I felt it would be best not to attempt a synopsis. In swift chapters that propel us along the journeys of a wide cast of characters, Lee’s novel speaks to a mother’s hope that her children see a world less harsh than her own. It deftly renders the coercive grasp of patriarchal violence across generations, the shadow of intergenerational trauma, brutalities of Japanese imperialism, and the alienation of those who are told they don’t belong. Above all, Lee guides us into the interior lives of all of her characters, letting us sit with feelings of shame, horror, fear, desire, and love that at times string together, capturing just how tangled our worlds can be. (Grand Central)
—Jyothi Natarajan, Editorial Director
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
“No word has any special hierarchy over any other,” says Arthur Sze, who begins Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Whereas is a momentous, instructional book. Maggie Nelson calls it “an intervention.” In every sense, Long Soldier intervenes where language is communication and memorial. “Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues, or gravestones. / The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act. / Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.” In a counter-memorial, Long Soldier indicts Congress’s “Apology to Native Peoples” as an act of selective memorial to fall favorably and familiarly within the course of US history. “Defamiliarize your writing then,” she writes in “Vaporative,” and Long Soldier demonstrates the elasticity of language—its variations, associations, how it is cut down and put back together again—in a way that only a deep practice of writing can yield. In Long Soldier’s care, each word draws attention to itself, every comma is a statement. What comes after one word does not bear the rest; the rest bears itself. The work is to begin distinction—“?e Sápa is not a black hill, not / Pahá Sápa; was not a rider on horse on mount”—where “not” functions as a visible erasure, am explicit engagement. There is also erasure and then its opposite. “But / is the small way to begin.” What might equalization look like but an inclusion of the contrary, a response and the first strike? Whereas is not only a reply to erasure, an argument which is the opposite of a proclamation, which includes that to which it is responding to, but also its other option, a memorial in which we act. (Graywolf Press)
—Yanyi, Margins Fellow
Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray
In a year that saw the not-so-secret secrets of “great” men determine their downfalls, I chose Sabina Murray’s historical fiction Valiant Gentlemen as my 2017 pick. The novel follows Irish patriot and humanitarian Roger Casement, his friend Herbert Ward, and Ward’s heiress wife Sarita Sanford. Valiant Gentlemen begins with Casement’s friendship with (and unrequited love for) Ward while in the Congo Free State. Casement turns on his former employers and advocates for the Congolese. Later, he colludes with the Germans to ship weapons into Ireland. Ultimately, possibly more of a condemnation than his attempted rebellion, what is responsible for Casement’s downfall is the discovery of his tragic life as a gay man. Meanwhile, Ward attempts to shed the scandal of a failed rescue mission in the Congo, involving cannibalism, rape, and slavery. He goes on a lecture tour, raises a family of five, and opens his home to injure WWI soldiers. Ward manages his quandary successfully, though history reflects more kindly on Casement.
The stand-out character is Sarita, who carries the uncredited burden of holding their families, friendship, finances, and legacies together through scandal and war. While Ward remains oblivious to Casement’s love, Sarita acknowledges and accepts their friendship—one that splits as they follow their diverging paths. Murray catalogues Casement’s and Ward’s complicity in cruelty and attempts at redemption with a stunning prose, evoking history in the everyday. (Grove Atlantic)
—Guia del Prado, Development Director
Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi
“In all of the books I love, the hero doesn’t strike back. But then again, none of the heroes look like me.”
The cover of Thousand Star Hotel, which shows a sparkler just going off, and a hand-held firework aflame, might just be the perfect way to describe this brilliant collection. It made my pulse race, made me want to hop from foot to foot as I read it, copying down almost every other line in my notebook. The voice is alternatingly tough and vulnerable, victorious and vanquished, addressing fatherhood, childhood, erasure, and identity. These poems are significant and weighty, but in an instant they go from somber to full of swagger, and I can’t emphasize enough how thrilling they felt to read. Buy a copy and let it scorch you. (Coffee House Press)
—Kyle Lucia Wu, Margins Fellow
New People by Danzy Senna
Set in 1990s Brooklyn, Danzy Senza’s New People is a gripping narrative of desire that simultaneously explores mixed racial heritage and the changing cultural landscape. Through the reflections of deeply introspective protagonist, the story meanders upon questions of cultural appropriation and post-racial transcendence. (Riverhead)
—Zaina Arafat, Muslim Communities Editor