Plus, one more I couldn’t bear to cut.
by Ann Mayhew
This_past April marked the launch of The Riveter’s monthly Canon, a book roundup that critically examines a number of intriguing female-authored books and features reviews written by some of our whipsmart, literary peers. (A huge thank you to all of our reviewers!) Race and dystopian worlds were two clear trends this year—unsurprising considering the political turmoil of the United States and countries across the globe.
Nonfiction such as the memoir “Real American” by Julie Lythcott-Haims and “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge; fiction such as the masterful “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward; the crime thriller “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke and the novel “A Kind of Freedom” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, as well as the poetry collection “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” by Morgan Parker relayed the black American and British experience with dazzling grit. Novels such as “The Power” by Naomi Alderman and “Future Home of the Living God” by Louise Erdrich drew our readers into unnerving, futuristic worlds in which the role of women has been drastically changed.
Immigrants and refugees shared their stories in books including the utterly breathtaking collection of Syrian testimonies “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” edited by Wendy Pearlman, the graphic novel “Threads: From the Refugee Crisis” by Kate Evans and the powerful “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions” by Valeria Luiselli.
In addition to timely, urgent themes, stunning prose (which makes such themes a pleasure to explore) was aplenty this year. I was partial to works in translation, including “Not One Day” by Anne Garréta (translated by Emma Ramadan), “The Impossible Fairy Tale” by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) and—my personal favorite book of the year—“The Iliac Crest” by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker).
Choosing 10—er, 11—favorites of 2017 was a bigger challenge than I initially expected. While there are numerous books that deserve a “best of” accolade, below are the titles that I’ll be thinking about, even into the new year. Read on, #RiveterNation.
“There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” by Morgan Parker
Tin House, 2/14/17
It seems impossible that there could still be more to say about Beyoncé, but poet Morgan Parker quickly distinguishes her commentary from the rest with her irresistibly sharp voice and feverishly precise exploration of black womanhoods in “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé.”
Beyoncé appears fleetingly in this collection; she enters poems as subject, narrator or cultural landmark but most often as a lingering presence. Her lyrics are not referenced so much as invoked, prayer-like: “wake up, flawless/ subjected, flawless.” At times her ghost is obvious simply in the swaggering rhythm of Parker’s lines: “I bless/ the dark, tuck/myself into a cannon/of steel. I breathe/ dried honeysuckle/and hope.”
Perceptions of black women are explored throughout the collection, as is the history of hatred and objectification of the black female body. Does Parker exist as a woman, if at all? “I am technically nothing/ human. I will never be/ a woman.” Or is she a vessel, a “crater of birth and service?” Parker challenges the commodification of and desire for black women’s bodies, “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD.” In one poem, RoboBeyoncé gyrates so “you can put your eyes on me. It’s less about obedience than/ silvery lipstick stains/ It’s mostly about machine tits.” Still, Beyoncé resists—after having body-swapped with Lady Gaga, she celebrates her figure in a lament: “I’d miss my booty/ in your butt.”
Most importantly, Parker celebrates the joys and beauty of black femininity, in all of its messiness and multiplicities. Parker’s triumph is explicit as she overcomes her anxieties, quotes Kanye, stays on her “grown woman shit” and stunts in her streets, “I open my stylish legs I get my swagger black/ Let men with gold teeth bow to my tits.”
“The Impossible Fairy Tale” by Han Yujoo, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Graywolf Press, 3/7/2017
Childhood, neglect and the role of the artist are intertwined in Yujoo’s eerie and haunting novel “The Impossible Fairy Tale.” In a late 1990s classroom, youthful innocence is matched by flagrant cruelty, a place in which the mentally ill schoolmate is bullied and bullies are revered. Here, the reader meets Mia, a kind-hearted but naïve, spoiled girl, and the Child, who “makes so little impression that she doesn’t even merit a name.” As part of their schoolwork, the students chronicle their lives in journals. The Child exerts control over her peers one night by breaking in and adding a single sentence to each notebook. This action—these seemingly minor alterations to each student’s story—sets into motion a devastating chain of events for the children.
What is the role of the parent to the child—or of the artist to the creation? While Yujoo’s disturbing depiction of one child abused and neglected by her parents (juxtaposed with another who is spoiled) can be taken at face value, this novel’s story truly revolves around the weight of creation and the cyclical nature of physical life to art, and art to life. Roughly two-thirds through the book, the narrative abruptly switches: the author’s first part wakes up and learns the central character in her story—the Child—is real, and at her apartment, ready to confront the author about the events of the novel’s first half.
The final layer to this exploration of the artist, creation and responsibility, is language. Superficially, the beauty of Yujoo’s writing and her expert word play, incredibly well translated by Hong, strengthens the sense of horror and unease that grows throughout the novel. But language is also used by Yujoo to heighten the novel’s self-awareness. The second part’s narrator is not just the “author” of the first part, but also a writing teacher. “You all assumed the story I told you was true, or at least partly true,” the author/narrator teaches her class. “Such is the power of story.” The unnerving quality of “The Impossible Fairy Tale” comes from the way it challenges the reader to question what a story is, while simultaneously forcing the reader to participate by reading.
“Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions” by Valeria Luiselli
Coffee House Press, 4/4/2017
Prompted by her work as a translator for undocumented children seeking legal status, Valeria Luiselli’s book-length essay carefully dissects our accepted narratives about race, nation, and immigration.
In this stark overview of the ongoing injustices experienced by immigrants, the future remains unclear for undocumented children trying to stay in the United States; throughout the book, Luiselli herself grapples with uncertainty, as her own daughter demands an “end” to the stories from court that Luiselli tells at home. While “Tell Me How It Ends” begins as an examination of these issues in 2014, Luiselli relates a broader understanding of the international policies and systemic influences that caused the crisis in the first place. She also offers narratives of hope; TIIA (Teen Immigrant Integration Association), the organization developed by Luiselli’s students at Hofstra University, is springing into action even now, providing key support for young people whose stability is perhaps even more threatened than when they arrived in this country through community engagement opportunities, English classes, civil liberties education and more.
“Tell Me How It Ends” is a damning but deeply humane indictment of the narratives with which we’ve built America, both the stories we keep hidden and those we use to justify our cruelty. The experiences of the children Luiselli interviews demand that we complicate our own roles in the immigration crisis’s continent-wide affect; we can’t rewrite what these children have been through, but we must pursue more compassionate, more just stories of our own.
“Kintu” by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Transit Books, 5/16/2017
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s award-winning debut novel follows the descendants of one clan leader scattered across twenty-first century Uganda as they deal with the implied repercussions of an old curse. In 1750, Kintu Kidda’s adopted son Kalema dies on a journey, and a shocked Kintu fails to ensure the burial is performed correctly. When Kalema’s true father guesses his son’s fate, disaster swiftly befalls the rest of Kintu’s family. Two and a half centuries later, madness and misfortune stalk his scattered progeny: a young woman haunted by the ghost of her twin, a devout Evangelical man troubled by his twin children, a telecom worker convinced he and his son have HIV and an aging Atheist who is having strange dreams.
Kintu muses, “If the soul is at conflict … what chance do communities have?” While Makumbi structures her novel around individual characters, these people exist in the context of multiple communities—clan, tribe, class, religion, gender. Characters assign one another to groups as a matter of course, especially using names as their starting point. Certain names denote twinhood, certain suffixes on a name can indicate or obscure a person’s tribal origins. But rather than being a familiar narrative of false assumptions or individual rejection of societal expectations, these communally-dictated identities are instead the key to the characters’ true selves. Makumbi’s characters are compelling as individuals, but it is their shared past and journey toward a shared future that elevate the novel to an epic and enigmatic masterpiece.
“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” by Wendy Pearlman
Custom House, 6/6/2017
For the past four years, Wendy Pearlman, a professor at Northwestern University focusing on Middle East politics, has been conducting interviews with Syrian women, men and children from all walks of life. In this extraordinary collection of testimonies, Pearlman presents these stories and gives voice to people who are often silenced.
The collection begins with a comprehensive introduction to the Syrian Civil War, with Pearlman’s goals for this book. Pearlman acknowledges what the book doesn’t accomplish: the voices within do not reflect all Syrians, especially those who support Assad. She also identifies all of her interviewees, explaining who they are and when she interviewed them. As Pearlman points out, the American media tends to portray Syrians as victims to be pitied or as hostile threats to our way of life, but not as human beings with agency. She spoke to Syrians about their experiences before the demonstrations began and up to those currently living as refugees.
After the introduction, Pearlman takes backstage. Besides translation into English, the stories are presented as they were told to Pearlman, without her interpretation. The Syrians within speak for themselves.
“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” is heartbreaking and horrifying (torture is not glossed over). Reading these people describe standing up to abuse and oppression is also incredibly moving. Cherin, a mother from Aleppo, says, “Before the revolution, I thought that Syria was for Assad. … When the revolution began, I discovered that Syria was my country.”
As a vital and powerful document of suppressed perspectives, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” should be required reading for not just all Americans, but everyone.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward
National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward returns to fiction with “Sing, Unburied, Sing”—and wins this year’s National Book Award for Fiction—an exquisitely controlled story about love, family and American violence. In her first novel since 2011’s “Salvage the Bones,” Ward confronts our national legacy of injustice and racism in a narrative that feels frighteningly intimate but resonates with timelessness.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” opens in the Mississippi Gulf with Jojo, a sensitive, biracial boy uncannily attuned to the voices of animals. He lives with his baby sister, Kayla, and their grandparents, Mam and Pap. Their mother, Leonie, is in and out of the house between her drug habit and her job in a backwoods bar. Their father, Michael, developed his own addiction after surviving the Deepwater Horizon explosion. A long drive to retrieve Michael from prison plunges each of them into a gripping struggle with the past.
In lyrical language permeated with eerie magical realism, Jojo and his family fight to preserve their humanity against forces determined to wrest it from them: prison, addiction, industry, police and traumas experienced and inherited. While the story offers harmony with elders, ancestors and the natural world as a balm, both land and lineage are fraught in a country founded on slavery.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a reckoning with this country, its brutality and its ghosts, a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected with painful clarity—a stirring, masterful accomplishment.
“Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 10/3/2017
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection is a rich work of literary horror that reads both fresh and as an instant classic, with remarkable sentence-level vigor and welcome, straightforward attention to womanhood and queerness.
In this whirlwind story collection, Machado leads readers on a slew of satisfying, spooky romps through settings that feel contemporary and familiar (a shopping mall, a bad house party) but are populated by the surreal. She conjures women with mysterious ribbons tied around their body parts; a stark series of love affairs in the face of a spreading pandemic; a The Shining-meets-Girl-Scout-camp artist residency; and a Law and Order fanfiction novella that transcends mere cleverness with pure humor and compassion.
“Her Body and Other Parties” casts its net wide, beguiling readers of horror, short stories, novellas, breakneck plots and excellent sentences, all with a winking, cunning wit. On the surface, the plain ambition of this intensely creepy and sharp collection is exciting, but peeling back the layers of each story only further reveals Machado’s striking balance of momentum and precision. Binding them all together is the author’s expansive imagination and generous intelligence, in which thrills are undergirded by a serious consideration of violence, sex and gender, turning horror conventions (and literary ones) on their heads.
“The Iliac Crest” by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker
Feminist Press, 10/10/2017
Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel “The Iliac Crest” is a mesmerizing and unsettling experience, hinting at a multitude of layers exploring gender, language, borders, Mexican female writers and the politics of insanity. Told through a first-person male narrator—with a tone that perfectly imitates that of classic Gothic narratives, i.e. male, self-important and self-involved, sexist—“The Iliac Crest” is a mind-bending descent into madness resulting from the glimpse of a single hipbone.
The book’s unnamed narrator, a doctor at an isolated sanitarium, is visited one night by two women—one a stranger, who claims to be the Mexican writer Amparo Dávila, seeking something of hers at the sanitarium; the other, a former lover. The two women move in, create an intimacy which includes their own, secret language, and begin harassing the narrator, claiming to know his secret: that he is actually a woman. The man’s quest to defend his masculinity results in his own, eventual, placement in the insane asylum at which he works.
Symbolism abounds in the book; again, there are great depths one could dig through, and “The Iliac Crest” could easily be read over and with new discoveries. Garza’s writing is gorgeous and precise, tying the various aspects of the book together into what is, at its core, a strange and unforgettable read.
“Real American” by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Henry Holt and Co., 10/3/2017
In her memoir “Real American,” Julie Lythcott-Haims does the hard work of reconciling the ways that she has been shaped by social and familial structures. In a series of brief chapters—rarely more than two pages each—Lythcott-Haims pulls the reader through a compelling narrative in which she confronts the ways that growing up Black, the child of a British white woman and an African-American man, in mostly white, small Midwestern towns, formed her notions of race and self. She chronicles her struggles with a ferocious honesty and bares her faults bravely. The shortness of these prose pieces allows readers to take these hard truths bit by bit, but the strength of Lythcott-Haims’ writing makes it difficult not to swallow in one sitting.
“Real American” reads a bit like an adventure novel in which the narrator is at risk and you can’t put it down for fear of finding out whether they will live or die, sink or swim. Of course, in the United States the lives of Black people are at risk daily. Lythcott-Haims writes compellingly about the young Black men who have been shot and killed in the U.S. in recent memory and how this informs the way she parents her own children, in particular her son. “Real American” is a memoir that brooks no interference, that challenges and rewards careful readers with powerful insights.
“Future Home of the Living God” by Louise Erdrich
Set in a dystopian near future, “Future Home of the Living God” is a sharp break from Erdrich’s previous work, but the compelling plot, precise prose, and deft storytelling that have defined her writing are still in full force. With questions of reproductive rights, religious extremism, and governmental abuse of power at its center, it will surely draw comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” However, despite such parallels, Erdrich’s new novel remains wholly original and hauntingly relevant to the present.
The novel is structured as a series of letters from Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an adopted young Ojibwe woman raised by white liberals in Minneapolis, to her unborn baby. At four months pregnant, Cedar visits her birth parents to learn about her heritage, but environmental and political chaos make her trip a dangerous one. Evolution is inexplicably moving backwards, causing newborns to resemble prehistoric creatures. As Christian extremists take power and begin capturing pregnant women, Cedar goes into hiding, discovering secrets about her family history as she fights for her life and that of her child.
Despite its bleakness, Future Home of the Living God still maintains a sense of hope. It isn’t saccharine optimism but instead a sincere belief in women’s agency and resiliency that ensures this work of speculative fiction is both powerful and prophetic.
“Mean” by Myriam Gurba
Coffee House Press, 11/7/2017
“Mean” is Myriam Gurba’s “nonfiction novel” of growing up queer, Chicana, and middle-class Californian, mapping her development as a feminist and an artist. In short chapters, she riffs on her childhood and adolescence with gritty aplomb—from the funky fragrance of her dorm room to the “Mexican casserole” made by her white neighbors, from eating disorders to Michael Jackson.
Although she divulges other hilarious and harrowing intimacies from her life, Gurba writes, “I wasn’t sure how detailed I wanted to be regarding dead and dying girls.” This negotiation of how to represent gendered violence is the crux of Gurba’s book. “Mean” is also a ghost story: the author feels haunted by Sophia Torres, who was beaten to death by the same man who raped Gurba. “Mean”’s opening sequence conveys the attack on Sophia in crystalline lines, creating a mystical quality that resonates with Gurba’s attention to female saints throughout the book. She calls Sophia’s name “sibilant,” intimating the “Sibyls”—prophetesses—of ancient Greece.
Gurba excels at uncanny turns of phrase, crafting off-kilter metaphors that inject humor into even the grimmest scenarios. This book also contains pleasure, portrayed just as honestly. Gurba details her adolescent fascination with women’s bodies, relationships with her high school girlfriends, and chats with female elders; she reveals the inner lives of women as both vulnerable and vicious. “What matters,” Gurba writes, “is a woman making art out of everything she was born with.”