Ignota Books of the Year 2021: Part I
Ignota friends and family choose their books of the year! <3 As we near the end of a challenging year, we offer this list of books and pamphlets chosen by Ignota's friends and family, which have accompanied their journeys. Part II here.
As this list is also intended in support of the book trade, especially fellow indies, we’ve added links to Bookshop.org (which unites independent booksellers to provide an alternative to Am*zon) or directly to publishers’ websites.
Jason Allen-Paisant’s Thinking With Trees is a totally transporting collection of poems. Each poem activates ecological thinking the way a leaf or a branch unfurls or grows upward, with patience and clarity. Just as a plant is shaped by its context or surroundings, so too is the thinking here. The clarified and knotty grace of these poems moves through lived conditions of racism, offering a redemptive exploration of the healing power of landscape, with a necessary suspicion towards the the histories of the pastoral and bucolic. Vanessa Onwuemezi’s Dark Neighbourhood is a godsend of a book. I search for a contemporary strangeness, despair, or ennui in books that feels as lived, and as colourful and as wayward as real life now. Onwuemezi’s writing is totally membranous, webbed and felt; the stories in this book are wild maps of thinking and feeling, a new way of replicating interiority through fiction.
In 2021, the world is simultaneously a place of wonderment – evidenced by the increasing potentials of our ever-expanding digital communications technologies – and Kafkaesque peculiarities of control brought about by those same advancements. For the former, Haruki Murakami’s First Person Singular conjures the limitless potentials of the imagination. An obsessively observant narrator introduces many oddities: a monkey who speaks eloquently on Bruckner’s symphonies, a circle without a circumference and with many centers. Murakami’s stretching of the real is a perfect match for a globe – ours – on the cusp of fuller entry into an ever-expanding digital metaverse. In Naked Lunch, originally published in 1959, William Burroughs appears to be writing about our current medicalised turn. His often obscene prose includes a character, Dr. Benway, who gets kicks from experimenting on his patients in the most sadistic fashion, akin to something out of MK-Ultra. Burroughs recites dense and dry medical terminology when describing what is, functionally, torture by clinician. The novel serves as a warning: the mystery of the human spirit, our malleable language, must be kept alive and vibrant even at a time when technology and the edicts of scientism hold dominance.
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross: In 2019 I was lucky to join a writing retreat with Inscribe/ Peepal Tree Press where Leone Ross led a workshop on speculative fiction. Leone’s energy was infectious, in a great way. When I showed her my moth tattoo, she shared with us that she was writing a book about someone addicted to eating hallucinogenic moths. And that is just one of the wonders and delights that makes up This One Sky Day, a book that comes from Ross’s the deeply beautiful and irreverent imagination. From the beautiful to the exuberant and erotic prose, this book takes you on a journey through one very eventful day of the imaginary Caribbean archipelago of Popisho. I read it twice in a row and will definitely be reading it again!
Dear Science and Other Stories by Katherine McKittrick: As a resistant and reluctant academic, what I love about this book is the way that Katherine McKittrick breaks the rules of knowledge production. We are forever in a conversation that produces knowledge or critique and McKittrick affirms this by presenting a book in which letters to friends about their last meeting, playlists, poetry, friendship and other things become key methodology in developing knowledge. This is a handbook for those of us that are thinking about the ‘otherwise’ and other ways. It reminds us that it is possible, that we are possible and that our ‘other’ ways are not just valid, but integral to challenging the status quo.
For this 3rd one I’m stuck! I read so many books that moved me this year: The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstien, Segu by Maryse Conde, Lote by Shola von Reinhold, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller (also read twice). Oh and so much more... but I think I want to end with a story from Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild: ‘The Book of Martha’. I was so moved by this story that asks us to imagine what we would choose to make this world a better place: a more inclusive, more just, less harmful place and how damned hard it is to figure out what is best. This immediately struck me as being the perfect conclusion to the short course I teach on the BA Fine Art at Goldsmiths called How We Get Free, an exploration in what it means to be a decolonial practitioner. The course explores decolonial methodologies, abolition, intersectionality, emergent strategy and more. ‘The Book of Martha’ posits the perfect speculative scenario to ask the question of how we indeed get free and bring about a freedom for all that we attempt to explore in the course and of course I read this story twice in one sitting!
Books were a balm this year, with many reads forming a constellation of something approximating hope – I'm grateful to many writers and editors for the gifts. Would love to give some shine in particular to: Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Magical, grounded, the way forward; wisdom on wisdom, and utterly fearless. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell, swept me up and left me winded, a psychological, supernatural eco-horror. Dreamlike and brutal, too, was The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh, images from which I know will continue to haunt me. And Ross Gay's Be Holding is an epic, graceful book-length poem on ethics, image, memory, and who we are as creators and consumers of art involving pain; read it at the start of the year, and have continued to hold it close.
States of the Body Produced By Love by poet Nisha Ramayya hasn’t left my bedside since I befriended it. I’ve read it over and over again, each time the poetics hitting deeper with their rhythmic dance between love and heartbreak and home and colonisation. The dreamlike journey of this book makes you feel tantric fire through its reconstruction of language.
Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life by philosopher Michael Marder is a deep philosophical encounter with plants through the deconstruction of metaphysics, a perspective I found refreshing as someone who reads about plants on a daily basis. The book dissects notions of spatiotemporality and soul within human interpretations of plants in order to redefine vegetality beyond life and nonlife (one of my favorite places).
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death is a collection of ‘farewell poems to life’ – a centuries-old tradition unique to Japan. It’s often said how near-death experiences change people’s lives, and these poems contain sentiments spawning from that very state, reconfiguring perspectives around death in alterity from western notions. Instead of focusing on the unknowing of death, this brings light to having knowing in what we leave behind.
HAN Systems: Sammy Lee and M.J. Harding
Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
Naked Earth by Eileen Chang
Each of these books addresses a moment in history through the lens of unheroic acts under the force of failing political systems. The 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea (Kang), post-Vietnam war Hmong immigrants in America (Fadiman), and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (Chang). Containing unflinching scenes of brutality and beauty, it’s their ability to reach outside of common morality and blame that resonates with us.
Nisha Ramayya's performance, part of a collaboration with MJ Harding at Wysing Polyphonic: Under Ether, was so stunning. I also loved ‘Greta’ by NT, a film portrait of the Trinidad-born dancer, Greta Mendez, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (part of a brilliant group show curated by Paul Goodwin, Untitled: Art on the Conditions of Our Time). It made me weep each time I went to visit it, early on Thursday mornings before the gallery filled up. Books from the United States: Kate Zambreno's To Write As If Already Dead, Truong Tran's book of the other, and Akilah Oliver's the she said dialogues: flesh memory (reprinted by Nightboat) were three favourites. Here in the UK: Cecilia Rossi's translations of Alejandra Pizarnik, an evocation of ‘unknown rain’: helped me so much. I am an obsessive reader of Guilaine Kinouani's monthly newsletter at Race Reflections. ‘On writing, Colonial Schemas & Liberation’ (May 2021) was so powerful. (See also: Kinouani's excellent new book: Living While Black: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Racial Trauma). In terms of the UK poetry scene, I’ve enjoyed the Digital Poetics series from the87 press. The ‘debris and rose of it all’, writes Carlos Mauricio Rojas, for example. One of the most beautiful lines of poetry I’ve ever read. From the87press, also, I'm looking forward to Sarona Abuaker’s Why so few women on the street at night, a hybrid work I loved reading, in advance. Afterwards + before.
Sex dictated most of my reading this year; I’m a monomaniac. Boy Parts by Eliza Clark was such an exciting debut novel, real raw fun. Its tale of a deluded working-class fine art graduate returning back up north having been chewed up and spat out by London is just not the sort of story you hear told much, but combining this implicit social commentary with a reckless, out-of-control narrative about kink gone wrong was a masterstroke.
Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System by Christopher Chitty was one of those long view history books that flicked 1000 switches on for me. It reappraises a Foucaultdian idea of the formation of homosexuality within a medical and carceral framework by looking at its specific development alongside the rise of capitalism, producing a compelling materialist case for the the link between sexual formation and labour practices.
My favourite book of the year, however, was without doubt 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell. It manages to combine pace and contemplation to track a constellation of different sexual and romantic relationships with men, and switches between critical and touching to offer a really honest and exciting vision of a part of queer life today. Passage after passage, I screamed.
Sarah Crewe, garn: garn is a city, a heart, a family, a poetics, a riot of working-class women’s lives and insistent presences in Liverpool’s architectures and open spaces, a hard, brilliant, essential (never essentialising) music of complexity that demands attention, but don’t take it from me, take it from CA Conrad who says "Sarah Crewe is an extraordinary poet who wields these centuries-old [class] divisions anew.”
adrienne maree brown, Grievers: a short book I read slowly that is still unfolding in my thoughts, it’s Detroit and its Black and brown communities held in adrienne maree brown’s cupped hands, a love letter to Grace Lee Boggs and to making (r)evolution slowly in place, a queer song for survival through a pandemic, a heartbreak healing, a story branching with tender new growth in grief.
Sawako Nakayasu, Say Translation Is Art: In a year of repetition, a text built from repetition with difference captivated me, an essay poem that works through feminist citation, through demystifying practice, through ‘unscrew[ing] the hegemony cap’, a rewilding of language/s, a ’nonbinary stance’ that loves translation for what it is in its marrow: exchange, possibility, resistance, erasure of borders.
On New Year’s Eve, I finished George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and was swept away by the rivers of sentiment and glistening-cataclysmic fatalism, which set the tone for this year. I loved Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009) for its visionary scales and its narrative scholarship, which made it an utterly pleasurable mind-shifting experience. Thanks to Holly Pester for this recommendation: Fran Ross’s Oreo (1974), which is the most stylishly cutting, laugh-out-loud analysis of mythologies of race, mixed-raceness, and cultural collision I’ve encountered, and an anti-fate tonic. In spring, I dove into a playlist of Scottish literature, featuring the radically different and differently sublime Shola von Reinhold’s Lote (2020), John Maclean (2018) by Henry Bell, Maud Sulter’s Zabat: Poetics of a Family Tree (1989), and Peter Manson’s Factitious Airs (2016) (you can read ‘Time Comes For You’ online). In July, we lost Callie Gardner, beloved poet, teacher, and friend, and the second half of the year has been filtered through the startling, continually distorting grief of that loss. If you haven’t read Callie’s work, I urge it all: naturally it is not (2018), the entire back catalogue of zarf (2015-20), and this wonderful essay/talk on poetry and the telephone (2021). Callie’s essay/talk paired with Patrick Farmer’s soft doors (2020) has kept me in a vibratory state of mind, listening out for symphonic movements of worming ears. These squirming distortions have been accompanied by many dear friends, and I’d especially like to send you to Tom Betteridge’s Mudchute (2021) to see you through the year (you can read the title poem online).
Himali Singh Soin
In this year of distances and deep, long desires to be close to those we love, I’ve been thinking of letters, stamps, envelopes and ink. And all the blank stamps and letters that have always never reached those in zones of conflict, an experience that others were privy to for the first time. The telepathic insistence with which we close our eyes and send missives to those we love across the salt desert: I love you.
Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without A Post Office stayed with me all year. ‘I’m writing to you from your far-off country. Far even from us who live here. Where you no longer are. Everyone carried his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home.’
I have also been moved by writing that turns the traditional ‘paysage moralisé’ of nature writing into really listening to trees and rivers. Not for answers but insights. Not for ways to be, but ways to become. Ben Gucciardi’s poem ‘The Nest’ in the collection West Portal, and Aria Aber’s ‘Waiting for your Call’ did this for me. It starts like this: The light retreats and is generous again. / No you to speak of, anywhere—neither in vicinity nor distance…
I loved the soon to be published Lobsters by Wayne Holloway Smith. It’s a stunning work of poetry that shakes down language in an innovative, darkly intricate way. Assembly, by Natasha Brown is an utterly compelling, agonising and brilliant novel- it showed me you don’t need to waste words when writing a masterpiece. And I went back to Rae Armantrout’s 2007 collection Next Life, and was reminded that poetry can do, and be, anything it needs to be as it interrogates the world.
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