Readers on Reading in 2017 — Kufre Usanga

My earliest memory of reading is irrevocably linked with receiving a thirst-inducing knock on the head from a very upset female cousin. I had picked up her not-properly kept love letter and was reading it aloud while walking towards the kitchen from our shared room in the family compound. Eyes glued to the words on the white sheet, sounding off each word and enjoying my success, I could not sense the audience my little adventure gathered and definitely did not see the knock that landed on my head until the deed was done. The knock dropped me to the ground and there I sat, wailing and holding on to the piece of paper until she dragged it out of my hand. “One day you will pick paper from the ground to read and turn blind” she scolded. And how almost right she was, well, or so I like to think, seeing as I cannot read these days without my glasses. Who knows, that knock may have helped to solidify reading as a part of me that nothing could deter.

Reading influenced my choice of studying Literature in the university and it has overtaken my social life. I now have fictive-besties and aunties I do not care to recount here. Reading offers the opportunity to travel without a visa, explore diverse cultures and broaden the purview. My best kind of reading are those done for fun, but sometimes, I study course materials and become enamoured. This has been my experience in 2017 as I was in and out of school within the year. Hence, my reading came in two bits – fun reading half way through the year and theoretical readings during the other half. But I suppose this in itself is an interesting mix. A valuable lesson I learned in 2017 is that theoretical works can be enjoyed too, so I found myself returning to certain books, chapters, and essays while ruminating on their postulations. I like to think the year took specific turns that hindered my reading of novels but compensated with new authors and new writings I fell in love with.

Nonetheless, I did finally read a great fun novel – Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I enjoyed the author’s use of guilt and the search for redemption to move the plot to a befitting climax. I could not find time for Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad but I have decided it will be my first read of 2018! Let’s dig in to a few favourites of mine from 2017.

Notable Reads

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay With Me is my favourite read of 2017 because of the relatable prose and the dual narrative voice the author skillfully carries. Adebayo’s skillful storytelling and her portraiture of contemporary Nigerian marriage and the protagonist’s maneuver of deceit and betrayal moved me to tears. The author interrogates the prevalent African instinct to blame the female whenever a couple struggles to procreate —which is grounded in patriarchy— and repositions the narrative by presenting Akin, not Yejide as the cause. I also treasure the nuanced message on sickle cell anemia and relished the Nigerian flavours, rhythms, intrigues and the incorporation of oral tales, proverbs and stories to situate and propel the tale. What more, the author spices them up to fit the narrator’s peculiarities. And girl can she write!!! A most beautiful first novel and I await her next! #FanGirl. I just want to add that Michiko Kakutani reviewed this novel before retiring.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

An overwhelming sadness and anger —sadness over Dana’s inability to terminate being tossed back into an era of predominant slavery, anger over the brutal savagery against black bodies in that era— stayed with me when I read this book. But I found strength in the interracial couple’s decision to work through the changes and difficulties forced on them after witnessing slavery. I enjoyed the time travel and shuffle between the dynamics of slavery and post-emancipation America as Dana attempts to influence her ancestry. I was fortunate to have read Demonic Grounds before this because it deepened my understanding of such geographic manipulation away from mere science fiction. Dana’s ability to move through walls and times presents a remapping of geographic and spatial boundaries while presenting Eurocentric normative geographies are permeable and alterable.

The Peculiars by Jen Thorpe

This warm novel exposes the disdain contemporary society and those in positions of power have towards the homeless and the afflicted. With its realistic characters navigating life in Cape Town and conquering self and fears, Thorpe presents mental illness with soft touch and love. The Centre for Improved Living becomes a lifeline and succor to Nazma (and others) as she faces her fear of driving which has crippled her dream of becoming a pastry chef. The diverse characters with different struggles inspire the readers as they confront phobias and navigate life in a small town. This is a novel about humanity and humaneness devoid of shame or scorn. The strength of this novel lies in the author’s ability to tell weighty/heavy issues in a lighthearted manner. Such warmth and happiness flooded me when Hamza’s mother conquered her fear of flying even as I recognized my own OCD and the prison my fears enclose me in. I saw myself in Sam and Ruby as I struggle daily but with hope in the knowledge that it will get better. Thorpe is holding a mirror to some of us and asking us to rise above our weaknesses.

Undercurrent by Rita Wong

There are diverse things to love about Rita Wong’s Undercurrent besides the powerful, evocative and inspiring water/eco-poetics in it. The author presents an ode to water; the oceans, streams, seas, and all water bodies, tasking her readers with careful consumption and use of nature. Her love for nature shines through with each carefully crafted poem and earth preservation mantra. Wong’s reverence for indigenous cultures and their earth-centered approach of living as interconnected relations with the nonhuman beings is laudable. The author shows that this ecological consciousness can preserve our world which is tethering on the edge of a looming apocalypse. I also enjoyed the little surprises the book offers; opening to meet randomly spaced drawings – the little girl watching the water/snail, the flowers, the tree, the snail, the ocean depth and even the photograph. For me, these details evoked different thoughts and moments that are crystallized to make the poetry collection natural. There is intensity to the sacredness of water that Wong entrances in this collection, brilliantly.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Citizen opens with the mundane everyday racist comments and profiling and progresses to the shocking (black murders) that is also becoming an everyday reality. Citizen builds up from microaggressions to macroaggressions and opens a black reader as myself to the gruesome fact that blackness is, can and will be felt more intensely when plastered against a white background. I found myself wondering who this book was written for and I questioned if those overt and covert racist acts/comments Rankine presents are that obvious to white readers. The plot presents the trauma that black skin imposes due to the history of chattel slavery and through the persistent use of “you”, the stories personalizes and implicates the readers.

This Wound is a World by Billy Ray Belcourt

This deep and disquieting work of utter genius and candor brought tears to my eyes but also ignites hope for a more accommodating world. The collection mirrors humanity in its foible, strength, prejudice and weaknesses. I found myself returning to particular words and lines. Billy Belcourt is a deep old soul with the uncanny ability to do mesmerizing things with words. We need more poets to arrest and open our vista to thoughts and terrains our perspective fears to tread. The author is dauntless and the poems are unapologetic and fierce. This dark collection soars because it unveils an iridescent shinning light of pure human strength and self acceptance amidst all uncertainties. The poems present the personal as communal and I enjoy every offering. So much that I took a picture of a poem that moved me to tears and sent to a Nigerian poet who exclaimed “Powerful and beautiful”.

Scenes of Seduction by Saidiya Hartman

Hartman’s work traces black acts of resistance (infinitesimal, trivial or covert acts to those considered major and highly subversive or overt) from slavery era to the present and underlines the continuation of slavery in contemporary American society even after their first black president. It provokes thoughts on Blackness and Being in the diaspora in an age where blackness is painfully unbearable and marked for certain death. Scenes widened my comprehension of the ruse that the Janus faced 13th amendment offered by making blacks free but enslaved, citizens but subjected and ranked as second class citizens. Sadly, the gifted freedom of emancipation cannot revoke the history of fungibility that secured slave status based on skin colour.

The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange

Dear reader, please find this mythopoetic novel and read it. You will love it if you love poetry and beautiful words that evoke deep meanings. This novel is special, and follows Maddy’s quest for a rare seed that was transposed from Africa to Brazil. It traces the protagonist’s self growth as she secures family, friendship, romance and seeds. I’ve read this more than once and I assure you it is the gift that keeps giving. A modern story about love, it encompasses the love of man and the love of nature while placing premium on the demands of such relationship. I love the non-linearity of the plot which complements the complex narrator and protagonist. The author’s keen eye for details and the narrative style and form will render you spellbound. I like to think I grew and discovered me while reading this beautiful tale. The vibrant colours of Brazil and its rhythm are brought to life in this work and you will be transplanted, for real. L’Ange takes us from the exportation of the Yoruba pantheon, culture and spices to the diverse factions of black diaspora in Brazil. Read it.

Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer

In this travelogue memoir, Heuer follows the Caribou porcupine herd (in their thousands) through the wilderness on foot to their calving ground at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to witness the birth of hundreds of Caribou. Constantly on the move, starved and sleep deprived, navigating intemperate weather and wild terrains, the journey is strenuous and fraught with danger for both human and Caribou (bears and wolves attacks). It is impossible not to be captivated by their attempt to be Caribou, as they neglect human routine and inanities to traverse the wild with the animals, and witness their trails and strengths. I was filled with admiration for the humans when they conceded that the Caribou are sentient beings, and unconquerable in their strength and focus. Unexplainably, the Caribou knew where to be, when to take a rest, when to sprint with force over some distance and when to relax and feed. The sheer number of the Caribou during this migration is amazing and mind boggling especially when one bears in mind that the Caribou are keeping a tradition that has been happening for thousands of years. I found myself accepting that coming from diverse regions and going in different batches, the caribou does have a way of communicating with each other. After reading this one of a kind memoir, I realized how important (now more than ever) it is to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to sustain animal diversity irrespective of oil corporations attempt to drill and destroy this calving ground.

Demonic Grounds: Black women and the Cartography of Struggle by Katherine McKittrick

Katherine McKittrick presents the remapping of spatial boundaries by black diasporic women and their countering of white hegemonic and naturalized geographies through acts of resistance in places they least thought of – the garret – and in the arts, like drama, and soundscape. Drawing upon lived examples from archives and autobiographies (Angelique and Harriet) and building on theoretical foundations by Sylvia Wynter, Toni Morrison, Glissant, Lefebre and Neil Smith, McKittrick theorizes that geographies are permeable, hence, can be remapped to accommodate new non-white realities.

In The Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

Sharpe theorizes “the wake” as a consciousness that Blacks need to live in, to overcome the crippling hold of white subjection and racism. The author unpacks that slave laws transformed into lynch laws that mutated into Jim Crow and other systemic spatialization that continues to translate blackness into bondage. Sharpe elucidates that the past (slavery) is never a past but dwells in the present and lives with the black body and maps it as a site of perpetual mourning. The wake consciousness is a tool for respatializing and remapping the pervasive antiblack weather of America. I return to this gripping book often and glean gems.

Books I’m looking forward to in 2018

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

After reading White Teeth, Swing Time and some of her essays for The New Yorker, I am looking forward to reading Smith’s collection of essays especially in this era of the afterlives of slavery and the burden of blackness.

The Flame by Leonard Cohen

The possibility of reading a collection of previously unpublished poems, personal notes and lyrics of Leonard Cohen is one of the reasons I know 2018 will be a great year. Nothing brings greater joy than the news that this collection was assembled before his passing and I will have another piece of his thoughts to hold dear. I love him. Rest in Peace Always. This book will open a different side of this legend to his fans.

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

Having read Known and Strange Things, I know Cole loves Photography and writing about it. This is why I am eager to read this latest offering from the author of Open City. This will be an exciting one, I am positive. Cole’s observance and detail-specific art is something I look forward to in 2018.

Kufre Usanga is a graduate student whose focus is on Orature and Environmental Literature.

This is the first of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.

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