Our (very subjective) list of the best books of 2016

James Baldwin Gets Comfortable to Write. Image Credit Bettmann (CORBIS).

We’re a bookish bunch at AIAC, and once a year we like to share some of our favorite reads from the year just gone. It always feels like there’s too much to read, because there is. But one can always read more! So here’s some more to add to your reading pile for 2017.

Wangui Kimari

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador, 2016): I was bracing myself for another Michela Wrong type narrative – Africans deep in the abyss of every kind of darky maelstrom. But the intricate and vibrant portraits painted here of Dadaab’s people making life amidst the violent encampments of Kenya’s self-interest, humanitarian inconsistency, Al-Shabaab, and the many structural and intimate manifestations of this, are very moving.

Chika Unigwe

Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Grove Press, 2016): relevant, insightful, timely and beautiful prose. Dantala, John’s protagonist, is a compelling character who stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

Zachary Levenson

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin/Random House New York, 2016). When a friend recommended this historical novel about the Gold Coast slave trade, I was skeptical: Gyasi is younger than I am, and how many historical novels have been written about slavery? Wrong. This book is phenomenal from start to finish. A progression of short stories about characters from two family lines in Ghana, Gyasi’s book demonstrates how the intimate life of the slave trade transforms understandings of race, power, and social structure in both Ghana and the US. For a book that only treats each of its characters briefly, the degree of character development is remarkable.

Gabeba Baderoon

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare (Jacana, 2015) shows how the extraordinary scale of sexual violence in South Africa became ordinary and invisible. The grave reality has begun to change, with students in the fees movements refusing to accept that sexual violence is a necessary price of struggle.

Neelika Jayawardane

Mr. Loverman, by Bernardine Evaristo (Penguin, 2013). Barrington “Barry” Walker, a Caribbean transplant to Stoke Newington, has been playing the field on the Down Low all his adult sexual life. At 74, he is still not ready to come out because…well, his wife, Carmel, is a fine cook (I mean, what man could reproduce her fried plantains or her stews?!). And he likes his house, and the social role he plays in his community as a three-piece suit wearing dapper gent with “a certain je ne sais whatsit” who built a not-inconsiderable real-estate business. It’s the “What would people say” about him being a “Buggerer of men” and the fear of resulting social death that stops him from being out in the open about his life-long love – whom he followed, from Antigua, all the way to Great Britain – the long-suffering Morris de la Roux. Although the novel revolves around Barry and Morris, and the “will they or won’t they” question, part of the fun of reading this book is in that Evaristo is grounded in post-colonial criticism. She does not reduce Carmel’s character to a devout Christian who may be using her hellfire and brimstone church morality to mask her own loneliness. We get to question Carmel’s own reasons for wanting to immigrate to Britain, though she came from a wealthy, landowning Antiguan family. In her youthful projections of escape, romantic love and desire for freedom from an abusive father are conflated with images of an idealized, pastoral England (even though Evaristo is careful to note that the actual Antiguan scenery around her is luscious – there’s even a hummingbird buzzing around as she dreams of the glories dear old England will offer). We see how Britain has carefully constructed and projected itself as the place in which ideal love, beauty, and fulfillment exists – through everything from images on teacups, popular narratives and the novels that Carmel reads. Needless to say, when she gets to London with Barry, she finds neither romantic love nor self-actualization. Even her skin looks like shit (happily restored, however, when she returns to Antigua). Through Carmel’s disappointing journey, we re-evaluate our own romance with the vestigial remnants of the British Empire.

Adam Shatz

This year I immersed myself in the work of two extraordinary French-language writers; both are just beginning to translated into English, and both help, in very different ways, to explain the current political impasse, particularly around the question of identity.

Zahia Rahmani is a Paris-based art historian and curator who is also an essayist and novelist. Born in 1962 in Algeria, the year the country won its independence from France, she moved to the French countryside with her family only a few years later, because her father was accused of being aharki, a member of the Algerian forces who fought alongside the French. (Although jailed for several years, he was comparatively lucky; tens of thousands of harkis were killed after the war, many in grisly public executions.) Rahmani, who grew up in a village where she and her Kabyle Berber family were the only Muslims, has written of this experience in three autobiographical fictions, one of which, France, Story of a Childhood, has just been translated by Yale University Press. The novel is a fragmentary, intensely lyrical and deeply affecting portrait of the artist as a young “Muslim” girl, reckoning with her place in an ostensibly inclusive yet hostile republic. In France, identity is a puzzle and a project, not a simple question of embracing some fixed “self.” In fact, the book that saves her is not a work of French or Algerian literature, but Richard Wright’s Black Boy, a reminder of the power of language to forge connections beyond identity.

Enzo Traverso is a historian, not a novelist, but he addresses a set of related questions in The End of Jewish Modernity, newly translated by Pluto Press. Born and raised in Italy, Traverso, who teaches in Paris and writes in French, has become one of our most trenchant guides to Europe’s descent into barbarism in the 1930s and 40s: in other words, to our present. The End of Jewish Modernity explores the rise and fall of the dissident Jewish intellectual tradition (from Marx and Rosa Luxembourg to Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt) that powerfully shaped Western critical thought. As Traverso explains in this terse, erudite and elegiac volume, radical Jewish modernity went into decline with the Nazi genocide, the creation of Israel (on the ruins of Arab Palestine), and the incorporation of Jews, the West’s historic Other, into the establishment. Yet its analyses of alienation, statelessness, racism and mass culture have seldom felt more prescient, as Traverso shows in Blood and Fire, a powerful and disturbing study of Europe’s “civil war” from 1914-45, newly translated by Verso.

Gina Ulysse

In Little Edges (Wesleyan University, 2015) Fred Moten uses white spaces on the page to lure and guide us through vastness, and the rhythmic poetics of his “shaped prose.” His crafted, homages to dailies, the greats are evidence of the avant-garde marronage in jazz – a  reminder that poetry is necessary in these times to breathe. (I re-read it twice this year).

Tseliso Monaheng

Bongani Madondo is class, style and sophistication. These traits he carries through and lets bleed through his writing. The results are what we have here, in 2016. Around May this year, Pan-Macmillan SA released another tome from the gahd himself. Titled Sigh, the Beloved Country — a subversion of the ole Alan Paton’s book title – the scholarly treatise follows on from I’m Not Your Weekend Special (2014), the collection of essays on Brenda Fassie, in which he was both contributor and editor. This time, Brother B levitates atop kush-cautioned keys, reaching a high whose viewfinder caters for recollections of train rides to and from Hammanskraal into Pretoria during the bum years of Apartheid, to rappers, their drug habits, and what the consequences of their actions say about this project-in-progress that we term democracy. It’s the gift that keeps overflowing; essential reading for now and beyond. Cop it!

Jill Kelly

Favorite read this year is The Underground (Restless Books, 2013). Uzbek novelist Hamid Ismailov follows the lonely child of a Siberian woman and an African athlete in Moscow for the 1980s Olympics through the city and its metro. Chapters named after metro stations explore what it might have meant to be black and Russian in the Soviet Union’s last decade and its aftermath. Reading Africa from Dallas, I’d be remiss not to recommend (newly translated with Deep Vellum Press) Fouad Laroui’s short story collection The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016) for deep laughs and Ananda Devi’s brutal Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016)for Mauritius beyond the resorts and beaches.

Herman Wasserman

One of the books I enjoyed this year was Richard Poplak and Kevin Bloom’s Continental Shift (Portobello Books, 2016). I reviewed it length in AIAC, but here is an extract again:

Continental Shift is an entertaining and stimulating recounting of the authors’ experience of traveling thousands of kilometers and wading through academic books, historical documents, policy documents and news articles. It covers a broad range of topics – construction in Namibia, the building of a dam in Botswana, mining in Zimbabwe, Nollywood in Nigeria, food security in Ethiopia, realpolitik in South Sudan and conflict in Central African Republic. Continental Shift’s biggest achievement is its lively, and sometimes even humorous tone. It’s a heady mix of memoir, ethnography, analysis, travel writing and at times comes close to a type of political poetry. The accessibility and lucidity of this ambitious project is largely thanks to the distinctive style of writing – fans of Poplak’s political journalism in the Daily Maverick will be familiar with his destructive sense of irony. But this is also a gripping tale because of its reliance on first-hand experiences and field work, several conversations and interviews, and sharp observations on the ground.

Jon Soske
Jack Shenker’s The Egyptians: A Radical History of Egypt’s Unfished Revolution (The New Press, 2016)A great writer, Shenker’s account of the Egyptian revolution and its betrayal is perceptive, nuanced and hard-hitting. It’s a welcome break from the revolutionary tourism that has so often passed as left analysis of the Arab revolts. Shenker understands the everyday struggles of Egyptians as the cutting edge of the global struggle to extend democracy from electoral systems to every aspect of our lives. Also, Keeanga-Yammata Taylor’s brilliant and stirring From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket, 2016) provides a synoptic historical account of U.S. White supremacy, counter insurgency, and the betrayals of the black elite. It’s hard-headed in its diagnosis of the obstacles confronting anti-racist and radical politics while insisting on the new possibilities of struggle illuminated by Black Lives Matter.  Finally, I would whole heartedly recommend Nnedi Okorador’s beautiful work of magical futurism, The Book of Phoenix (Hodder, 2016). And everything else she has written.

Aditi Surie von Czechowski

Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a masterpiece of adaptation and evasion. Set between Berlin and Chicago, it narrates the psychic aftermath of black resistance and the impossibility of choice. A meditation on blackness as politics and the promise of different futures that somehow never quite pan out in the face of structural racism, this book left me reeling.

Dan Magaziner

Best fiction: Jose Eduardo Agualusa, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker, 2015). The revolution comes to Luanda, most Portuguese flee, Ludo is left behind and resolves never to go outside again. Historical and urban transformations are glimpsed only in moments. Artfully wrought, melancholic, moving and hilarious. And published in English by a small independent press to boot!

Best academic: Neil Roberts, Freedom as Maroonage (University of Chicago Press, 2015). The necessary relationship between struggle and freedom, reflecting on the efforts of slaves to establish durable communities through flight. Powerfully written, theoretically rigorous and good to think with in depressing times.

Thando Njovane

Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s Dust (2014). Dust is a novel mired as much in grief and loss as it is in love (both filial and romantic) and redemption. It is an epic with acute insights into the human spirit and psychological motivations, rooted in the land’s memory of itself and its people, and covered in dust. Immaculately crafted and beautifully lyrical, Dust endures as a love letter to Kenya and to us all. I can only recommend Dust. I’m haunted by it.

Sophia Azeb

Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (Verso, 1988).  On Wednesday, November 9, I dragged myself out of bed and made way to my office. There, just around the corner from Washington Square Park and only a few hours after the first of the spontaneous protests against the U.S. election results, I re-read Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s 2010 Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, “What Is To Be Done?” (answer: “Organise!”), and the late Stuart Hall’s only single-authored monograph: The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. Published in1988 and drawn from an array of his previously published articles on the topic, Hall theorizes that the concept of Thatcherism is based on the state and public investment in “free market, strong state, iron times, and authoritarian populism” and laments that Thatcherism is enabled, if not encouraged, by the dilution of the left. In one particularly damning essay, Hall writes: “If Labour has no other function, its role is surely to generalize the issues of the class it claims to represent. Instead its main aim was damage limitation.” Sound familiar?

Despite this cheerless assessment, Stuart Hall’s valuable insights (doubtless the inspiration for a new series of texts by and about Hall from Duke University Press in 2017) are found in the realm of possibility that understanding and articulating Thatcherism as a phenomenon provides: if we understand how Thatcherism successfully modernized regressive, anti-worker politics, perhaps the left can embrace our own radical politics (in Hall’s writing, the example of feminism is given. For our times, we might look to Black Lives Matter and the Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin camp) to the same end.

Abdi Latif Ega

Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain (Heinemann, 2000) is a powerful, nuanced and highly evocative exploration of the nexus between silence and power (my favorite character in the novel, an elderly woman, entreats her grandson, “A story that must be told never forgives silence.”). It is at once an enthralling, fast-paced narrative and a sardonic meditation on the ethical, political and social dimensions of silence and the imperative to bear witness.

Ndibe’s second novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. (Soho Press, 2014) offers a fresh, sharp-witted perspective on the modernist impulse to turn everything, including (in the case of the novel, deities and sacred objects) into commodities. Ndibe’s latest, a memoir titled Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American (Soho Press, 2016), offers memorable and instructive vignettes from the author’s life as an immigrant in the United States. A wonderfully humorous writer, Ndibe uses the memoir to illuminate essential truths about the hard, sometimes even harrowing, price that many immigrants must pay for their rite of passage.

Okey Ndibe’s writing, especially his first two novels, have received enthusiastic reviews and been praised by such literary greats as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, and African-American writer, John Edgar Wideman.

Elliot Ross

For whatever reason, this was the year I couldn’t stop reading memoirs, having previously been somewhat circumspect about the genre. All excellent in different ways were: Emily Witt’s Future Sex (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), Samuel Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water (Arbor House, 1988), Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing, 2015), and Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives (Macmillan, 2014). Highly recommended.

Further Reading

Beyond the headlines

Recent violence across the Eritrean diaspora is being instrumentalized by populists. But the violence is a desperate cry for attention and requires the Eritrean opposition to seize the moment for regime change.

Action required

Held in Nairobi this month, the inaugural Africa Climate Summit is an important step for the continent’s response to climate change. Still, the disasters in Libya and Morocco underscore that rhetoric and declarations are not enough.

The strange non-death of Bantustans

That South African political parties across the spectrum were quick to venerate the politician and Zulu prince Mangosutho Buthelezi, who died last week, demonstrates that the country is still attached to Bantustan ideology.

Shifting the guilt

Even though Israeli novelist Agur Schiff’s latest book is meant to be a satirical reflection on the legacy of slavery and stereotypes about Africa, it ends up reinforcing them.

Banana Republics

Western leftists are arguing among themselves about whether there will be bananas under socialism. In Africa, however, bananas do not necessarily represent the vagaries of capitalism.