Samira Sawlani is back with her Top 15 Fiction books of the year by writers of colour from around the world.
Chinua Achebe once said “I don’t lay down the law for anybody else but I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens. My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity.”
In these testing times these words of Achebe run true.
Books allow us insight into other worlds, they capture history, challenge stereotypes, provide us with new narratives, and give us a sense of escapism, of much needed relief.
Words on paper (or on your screen depending on if you are partial to the kindle-esque devices) which touch the senses, evoke emotions and bring us much joy, laughter and sometimes sadness.
Over the last few years there has been much talk about diversity (or lack of) in publishing, we are finally having discussions about the importance of seeing more writers of colour in our bookshops and on our book shelves.
The power of representation, of seeing ourselves in books, not being ‘othered’ or written in as stereotypical sidekicks.
While there is still a long way to go, the array of books by writers of colour published in 2017 has been spell-binding.
Spine tingling prose, hilarious satire and hard hitting plotlines by exceptionally talented authors of colour has meant that once again, compiling this list has been a challenge.
So without further ado, see below (in no particular order), Top 15 Books by writers of colour published in 2017
Pachinko, By Min Jin Lee
There are writers who tell stories which otherwise would be forgotten, erased, lost in time and history. Min Jin Lee is one such writer.
Pachinko is the story of a Korean family living in Japan, charting their journey across decades, exploring the fate of four generations, carrying with them the burdens of history, exile and displacement.
The experiences of the Korean community in Japan (often called zainichi) and the discrimination they have faced since Japan’s occupation of Korea is an important story to tell and Min Jin Lee has done this flawlessly.
More powerful still are the characters, the domestic dramas and the often heart breaking dialogue, all of which have formed a masterpiece.
Long after I finished the book one sentence stood out to me; ‘For people like us, home doesn’t exist’
A sentiment which perhaps resonates with too many of us.
Stay With Me, By Ayobami Adebayo
Rare is it to come across a writer who captures and articulates the human experience as flawlessly as Ayobami Adebayo does.
In this, her debut novel, Adebayo tells the story of Yejide and Akin, and their journey from love to marriage and then to the tragedy of a childless marriage.
Healers, and men of God are sought, rituals are carried out and pilgrimages are undertaken to ‘fix’ the problem.
Infertility, infidelity, birth, death and the shaky foundations of a marriage collapsing under these burdens, while in the background the political landscape of Nigeria continues to change.
Stigma, gender roles, identity, womanhood and mental health are just some of the themes tackled in the book, just how far are we humans willing to go to meet those societal standards which we believe define us?
More notable still is the subtle realisation that while outside the walls of their home the Country undergoes its own turmoil, Akin and Yejide’s lives and domestic dramas do not stop.
At its core Stay With Me is about love, exposing in one both its force and its fragility, as said by Akin ‘If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks and comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.’
This is the kind of book one drowns in, impossible to not be drawn into the lives and feelings of every character.
It is my book of 2017.
The President’s Gardens, By Muhsin Al-Ramli
Many of us are used to seeing Iraq on the news, a Country making headlines or being part of that special report on the news. But what do we really know? How much of an insight do we really have on a part of the world which has often been reduced to a handful of events such as the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion?
The President’s Garden was written in 2012 by Iraqi novelist Muhsin Al-Ramli, and finally this year it found its way to bookshops across the world after being translated into English by Luke Leafgren.
The book opens on a disturbing yet gripping note when “in a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons.”
From here on the reader is thrown into the lives of Ibrahim, Abdullah and Tariq, from their birth in the late 1950s to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by America and her allies.
Muhsin Al-Ramli’s writing is exquisite, a renowned writer and academic, he experienced first-hand the reality of living under the Saddam Hussein regime when his brother, the writer Hassan Matlak, was found guilty of attempting a coup and sentenced to death.
This book serves as a stark reminder that Iraqi history is far more complex than the mainstream media would have us think and that behind the newspaper headlines, the politics and war, there are people grappling with the everyday realities of life.
Salt Houses, By Hala Alyan
The night before her daughter’s wedding Salma reads the coffee cup of the bride to be, she sees signs leading towards an unsettled life and reflects upon the family’s own displacement, from Jaffa to Nablus. The book travels through place and time, telling the stories of the Yacoub family over a span of fifty years, from Palestine to Kuwait to France to Beirut, lives shattered. Lives scattered.
The characters are relatable, flawed and broken, the writing skilful, artistic and evocative.
Salt Houses is as ravishing as it is painful, it is the story of exile, of having a home yet being homeless, it is the story of loss, of memory; ‘the houses float up to his mind’s eye like jinn, past lovers. The sloping roof of his mother’s hut, the marbled tiles in Salma’s kitchen, the small house he shared with Alia in Nablus. The Kuwait home. The Beirut apartments. This house, here in Amman… They glitter whitely in his mind, like structures made of salt, before a tidal wave comes and sweeps them away.’
The Goddess of Mtwara (Caine prize for African writing 2017)
While every year the Caine Prize collection release an excellent anthology of stories by the best writers from across the African continent, this year’s was something special, largely due to the inclusion of two stories; Arinze Ifeakandu’s ‘God’s Children are Little Broken Things’ and Agazit Abate’s ‘Fidel’.
‘People happen to people, Rachel once said. Kamsi happened to you’ writes Ifeakandu in his story about two young men, who against the backdrop of state sanctioned homophobia, fall in love.
Meanwhile in Fidel, we see a young woman reflect upon her relationship as she mourns Fidel Castro ‘When asked by a journalist once about Che after his death, Fidel responded, ‘I dream of him often’; A love letter in five words: I dream of him often.’
Imagine reading a book while sat on a busy train, only to forget where you are, to be unaware of your surroundings, to find tears running down your face, so overwhelmed are you by the words on paper.
That was the impact the stories which formed part of this collection had on me.
Rich People Problems (From the Crazy Rich trilogy), By Kevin Kwan
Drama, diamonds and designer handbags. The third in the instalment of the Crazy Rich trilogy, this book, like the others in the series is addictive, outrageous and fascinating.
Kevin Kwan allows us a peek into the world of Singapore’s super rich (In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Mr Kwan stated that ‘there’s very little in my book that’s made up’) here we see rivalries, romance and relationships against the backdrop of the glitz, glamour and greed which forms part and parcel of the lifestyle of the elite.
Do yourself a favour and read these books; meet the characters, be prepared for the acid- tongued comments, salivate over descriptions of the food and the fashion and experience how the other life lives.
On a side note, filming of the Crazy Rich Asians movie is underway and has been the talk of Hollywood, particularly as it features an all Asian cast.
While we can’t for the film, we can safely say that the books are the perfect combination of satire and entertainment, you will devour these in one sitting.
Mr. Fix It, By Richard Ali A Mutu
Clever, quirky and brave. Set in DR Congo, Mr Fix it is the first novel to be translated from Lingala to English, at the centre of the story is our protagonist Ebamba, a young man living in Kinshasa. In the opening scenes our hero is involved in negotiations over the bride price which once paid, would allow him to marry his girlfriend. As debate goes on it begins to rain, creating chaos across the city of Kinshasa, the city symbolic of the country, its people and its systems as a whole, carrying the burdens of colonialism and corruption.
Considering how powerful and poignant a read this is, as it travels across languages, clearly, nothing has been lost in translation.
The Refugees, By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Timely, touching and traumatic. This collection of short stories centred by Vietnamese- American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen is dedicated to ‘all refugees everywhere’, and is both dazzling and devastating.
A collection of eight stories exploring the lives of members of the Vietnamese community, forced to leave home, straddling two worlds, two countries, to worlds.
This collection is a reminder that displacement and migration is not just a set of circumstances, it is an experience, carried by our bodies, our minds, our memories.
If ever there was a time a book like this needed to be written, it is now.
I am not your perfect Mexican daughter, By Erika L Sanchez
Though considered a novel for Young Adults, this coming of age story is one which will be appreciated by readers across age groups.
Fifteen year old Julia’s Sister Olga (the perfect Mexican daughter) is killed in an accident, leaving behind a family filled with grief and devastation.
As Julia attempts to rebuild her life and that of those around her, she grapples with being the ‘not perfect Mexican daughter’, delving deeper into the life of her seemingly perfect sister, while undergoing the many growing pains associated with being a teenager.
Living between two cultures, battling stereotypes and forming one’s own identity, this is a story which will resonate with those both in the diaspora and at ‘home’, and will also make a great gift for the young adults in your life.
The Other Half of Happiness, By Ayisha Malik
Sofia Khan is back and she has got her man, surely she is living the ‘happily ever after?’ Well, it is a little more complicated than that, and if you are familiar with Sofia from Ayisha Malik’s first book, then you probably will not be surprised. Some have dubbed our heroine the ‘Muslim Bridget Jones’, well she is that and a whole lot more. Funny, lovable and feisty at times, The Other Half of Happiness takes us back into the world of Sofia as she settles into married life with boy next door Conall, pursues new career dreams and navigates life with her loveable but crazy family and friends. If you loved Sofia Khan is not obliged, you will adore this book with its razor sharp dialogue and many a laugh out loud moments, be warned though, there are many heart wrenching scenes too, keep the tissues close.
We that are young, By Preti Taneja
One would be forgiven for not believing that this is Preti Taneja’s debut novel, as for many a writer it takes years to reach this level of perfection.
We that are young is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this time the setting is modern day India, and at the centre of the story is a family and their business empire.
Corruption, greed, misogyny and the seductive nature of power all form part of this whirlwind of a book, each page dripping with emotion, aggression and a hunger of sorts, reflective of its characters and the Country as a whole.
The book has received rave reviews, one just has to read the first few pages to understand why.
A Casualty of Power, By Mukuka Chipanta
Though published towards the end of 2016, A Casualty of Power has been mentioned in literary circles throughout this year and has garnered much praise.
This is one of those books which does not shy away from asking difficult questions, shedding light upon the failures of the government and those systems which are meant to serve the populace. Set in Zambia, this is the story of protagonist Hamoonga Moya, who finds himself caught up in a web of crime and corruption, eventually landing him in jail. Upon release he finds employment on a Chinese managed copper mine, where once again he faces the stark realities of exploitation, politics and injustice.
This is a fast paced read, one which holds the reader’s attention, while exploring important themes.
Rotten Row, by Petinah Gappah
Petinah Gappah has long been considered a literary giant, and her collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe certainly confirms this.
Rotten Row (The Street in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare where the criminal courts are situated) is a collection of stories through which the country comes alive. From a hair salon to a boarding school to a wedding, the stories are filled with tragedy, comedy, injustice and a telling of day to day life.
With all eyes on Zimbabwe following the end of the Mugabe presidency, now, more than ever, this book truly is essential reading.
It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and more importantly, it will make you think.
What we Lose, By Zinzi Clemmons
Stunned was I to discover that this was Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel. This Goosebumps inducing read can be likened to an autobiography of grief, not just that which one experiences upon death, but that which becomes an innate part of so many of us who have lost homes, cultures, identities and a sense of self.
Like Clemmons, the protagonist Thandi is half South African, half African-American, never quite fitting in anywhere, ‘But when I call myself black, my cousins look at me askance. They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race.’
As she grapples with the feeling of being a ‘strange in-betweener’, one is exposed to the challenges of straddling two cultures, her reflections on race, class and the Diaspora experience seen throughout the book, against the backdrop of life simply happening.
Threaded into the story flawlessly is the journey of South Africa, the continuous reminder of the myth that is ‘the Rainbow nation’, the Country in many ways a reflection of the protagonist, in seeking a sense of identity and belonging while divided in so many ways.
The real magic of this book lies in its humanness, few writers are able to express what it is to experience loss and death as effortlessly as Zinzi Clemmons’ has.
This is one of those reads which has that rare capability to leave the reader both unravelled and whole.
No Place To Call Home, By JJ Bola
This is the story of anyone who has known displacement and exile, it is the story of those have lost homes, crossed borders in search of safety and found themselves in new lands desperately holding on to the culture which links them to all they have left behind.
At the centre of the plot is a Congolese family seeking asylum in the UK, having fled conflict in their homeland. Told from the perspective of the two children Jean and Marie and how they navigate this new world they find themselves in.
One of the most beautiful elements of this book is its focus on the Congolese community and Diaspora, the array of colourful characters alongside clever dialogue giving it a real edge.
One such example, there is Mama Nana who ‘did not speak French. Neither did she speak English. It was not because of a lack of education. It was an act of resistance. She would say in her strongest Lingala ‘Look at my back, if it this bent from all the things imposed on me, how bent do you think my tongue is? I am simply trying to straighten it out.’
In a time where refugees and asylum seekers are demonised and dehumanised, this book is a stark reminder that everyone has a story, a history, a journey, something largely overlooked due to the continuous dehumanization of those that find themselves in that position. Furthermore, JJ Bola’s ability to tell this story from the perspective of two children while appealing to adult audiences is an art in itself, one which many a writer have tried and failed at.
This list is by no means exhaustive, other books which deserve a mention include Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, No Place to Call Home by JJ Bola, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, A State of Freedom By Neil Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
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Samira Sawlani is a writer, journalist and analyst focusing on East Africa (With an eye on the rest of the Continent). Alongside this she is a lover of fashion, fiction and poetry and is the Director of Audience for Media Diversified.
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