Readers on Reading in 2017 — Tolu Daniel

My Notable Reads of 2017

Speaking with a friend some time ago about the disappointments which characterized both our year, we couldn’t find many, not because there were none but perhaps because of how we dealt with each of these moments respectively. He would go on to tell me about how although he encountered the same kinds of disappointments he had been encountering all his life, his response this year was not as damning as of the years past. He told me how he received bad news and kept on walking as if he had just been sprinkled with tiny speckles of dirt when in truth, he had been sandwiched in wet concrete. I could relate strongly with him, his narrative and mine are twined in that kind of direction. As at the end of 2016, my life was towing a particular direction, everything was looking hopeful till the misses began. And although I tried really hard to insulate my reading habits from it, I couldn’t do it successfully.

The year in reading boded differences for me in many dimensions. I would pick a book and browse through the abundance of the internet to read reviews and comments about them just to be sure the book would be worthy of the time I wanted to expend on it. I wanted only to read from a place of learning and not leisure. And this is perhaps because as a writer, I have graduated from my fascination with narrative voices and patterns to someplace else. Now I don’t care much for remarkable narratives or remarkable writing styles. What does it mostly for me is the freshness of sentences, the creation and infusion of new metaphors and the attention to details that sometimes may not be relevant to a reader who just wants to get over a book. I also find writers who are able to combine all these kinds of simple things into their narratives and still have their narrative voice retain its innocence, incredibly fascinating. So as you might imagine, this new direction ensured I embraced the horrible habit of beginning some books and abandoning them halfway. As a writer, I have found that the kinds of stories I prefer telling are stories that are woven with time. Some people refer to this, as a form of consciousness and to an extent I agree with them. I like to believe that the foremost job of a writer is to serve as a witness. So most of the books you will find in my list this year will be books where the authors served me what I wanted the way I wanted it.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (published by Alfred A. Knopf)

This was one of the most surprising debuts of 2017 and if there was a Nigerian writer who ran the literary marathon this year and won it, it would be Adebayo. This book was arguably one of the most remarkable narratives I came across this year. Most of the reviews paid service to its remark-ability. There are many things to like and many things to frown at in this book but the general opinion which this book elicited especially given the amount of ovation it got shortly after its shortlist for the Bailey’s Women Prize was that of acceptance. The narrative was about how a young married couple dealt with issues of infertility in their new marriage.

One of the highlights of this book was how the writer served us the Yoruba variance of the English language complete with all the accentuations and didn’t at any point alienate the readers with these nuances. Another was how each chapter embodied a plot each and synchronized into the general idea which the writer was trying to portray. Like an anonymous reviewer on twitter tweeted of the book, the writing isn’t the best out there but the manner with which the narrative was presented allowed readers to actively participate as if the book was a love letter of sorts between reader and writer.

Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi (published by Kwani?)

In the years after my interest in African Literature became a thing, I happened upon several arguments and debates about how Africa should be represented by writers within and outside the continent. In those debates, there was always this burden of responsibility endowed upon the African writer and I have often found these burdens problematic. Problematic in the sense of how prescriptive these ideas were and how these prescriptions usually have ways through which they restrict arts for the sakes of art. Kintu by Jenifer Nsabuga Makumbi seemed to me like a sort of response to all these debates. Kintu for me is the quintessential African historical fiction narrative of our generation which was filled with all the anecdotes to keep the raging tongues of the debaters busy for a while. One of the most remarkable things about this book has to be the extent of effort that must have gone into ridding the narrative of any Eurocentric vibe despite how steeped the narrative was in history and time. Kintu is the re-imagination of Uganda’s history through the tracing of the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan. The narrative begins with the history of the curse and the journeys and timelines the curse went through to find fulfillment. Easily my best read this year because of the many depths that the narrative covered.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole (published by Faber)

This collection of essays was one of my first reads of the year and somehow it influenced how my writing journey went as the year progressed as I took more interest in producing essays too. In the years since my first encounter with Cole’s writing, I have come to discover of his prose a certain kind of uniqueness that alludes to an individual who walks around brooding. In his debut novel, Open City, Cole’s protagonist was heavily similar in manner and thoughts to the protagonist in his second novel Every Day Is For The Thief. Some critics have said of this characteristic of his protagonists to borrow from the writer’s reality to be a sort of an expression in narcissism but I beg to object since I am of the opinion that a writer situating themselves in the middle of their prose affords the reader some form of legitimacy to the claims of the writer. So in this, I believe the writer is affirming his place as a witness. But after witnessing Cole himself in conversations about his books in 2013 and 2016 respectively at the Ake Festival held in Abeokuta, Nigeria I have come to some decisions about him. This writer is one who doesn’t give many fucks about convention and this is what makes him exciting to read. In this collection, Cole ranges over his very diverse and disparate interests in his very familiar and laser sharp prose. In some of the essays, he wrote of his journeys in finding self, dealing with identity, situating himself in roads once travelled by his favorite writers and juxtaposing their realities with his own in the moment. In this collection, you would see him talk about Sebald, Berger and Baldwin and his other influences.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (published by Riverhead Books)

When as a young writer, I would get quizzed about the kinds of narratives I wanted to produce, my reply was usually in the manner of gut wrenching and emotional pieces but as the years progressed in my writing, I found writing these kinds of narratives difficult perhaps because I was never in touch with my emotions as I would have liked to. Reading The Kite Runner was definitely one of the highlights of my year not just because it served as an introduction of sorts for me to the works of Hosseini but because it afforded me the opportunity of seeing a narrative that was primarily about betrayal and redemption go all the way into including everything else into it. The narrative painted a world so far away in manner so clear and so familiar; I could almost swear that the reality was mine also. The narrative follows the coming of age of Amir, the son of a wealthy Kabul Merchant and his relationship with his servant and companion Hassan.

Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward (published by Penguin Books)

This poetry collection came to me in fragments at first, one short poem after the other before the whole collection found its way into my hands. It drove me into developing a kinship with the writer despite not knowing much about her. In reading Bone, I discovered how limitless and powerful poetry can be. I also found out how stories could be embedded inside poetry. In Bone, I found myself, a full blooded straight black male, living in a world of privilege except where the color of his skin is concerned. I read of my trials and experiences in a kindred spirit and I felt at home in the accessibility of the writing. One of the many criticisms of this collection, is its lack of a kind of originality, a depth that some other forms of poetry usually possess, but my counter argument is that how else do you measure depth or originality if not by examining critically and accepting the brilliance in the documentation of the experiences of a black woman who has written in such a way that even black men feel included.

Other Notable Reads In the Year

In my essay last year, I restricted my list to simply fiction and books generally either they came in eBooks, hard or paperbacks but this year I have included poetry chapbooks, essays and short stories.

Poetry Chapbooks

How To Cook A Ghost by Logan February (published by Glass Poetry Journal)

One of the miracles of this year for me was discovering this young poet and digesting his works. In this chapbook, he explores a variety of themes, with the themes of love, loss, queerness and identity being dominant. The poems are subtle and powerful altogether and they would leave you with a yearning that can only be matched by reading and engaging more with the writer’s works.

Burnt Men by Romeo Oriogun (published by Praxis Magazine Online)

In the years since I began reading narrative poetry, I think Oriogun’s poetry has spoken to me the most because of the extent of its honesty and defiance. In an era of superficial activism and hypocrisy, Oriogun’s voice challenges the norm and addresses topics which may otherwise have been classified taboos and renders them in the most beautiful lines. In this collection, his sentences are laced with such colorful and powerful metaphors.

Short Stories

Disappointing Reads

Like I said earlier, there were books that I anticipated last year that just didn’t cut it for me, not because they were not essentially good reads for some readers but because for me, my interest has shifted from what it used to be.

The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan (published by Cassava Republic)

Carnivorous City was that book for me that could have been much more than was advertised. Not to say there was anything wrong with the manner with which Lagos was portrayed in the book but to a major extent, I felt the narrative majored on describing Lagos more than telling the stories of its characters and this was where I just couldn’t move on. On the overall, I applaud the author for the effort.

When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola (published by Cassava Republic)

I gave this particular book two reads because I wanted to be sure there wasn’t something I was missing and at the end of the exercise I have come to the conclusion that perhaps there was and maybe there is nothing I can do about it. But I liked the story line which was why I was able to endure reading it twice, I even like the way the characters sort of ran into each other and the way language was central to the narrative but there was so much more going on that I couldn’t keep up with. Like how it felt like the authorial voice kept mingling with the flow of the narrative, it was a serious cause for confusion.

2018 promises a lot of interesting titles and while I have stocked up on some of them, I still expect to get some more. My bookshelf currently boasts of new titles from Madeliene ThienColson WhiteheadNnedi OkoraforArundathi RoyJose Eduardo Agulusa and George Saunders and I look forward to adding up titles like Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness by TJ Benson and The Lives of Great Men by Frankie Edozien to the fray.

Tolu Daniel is a writer and photographer.

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

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