In the months since my book, Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging came out, I’ve been reading a wide and eclectic mix of books as I try, like everyone else, to make sense of what’s happening in 2020 and beyond.
First, I’ve had a chance to return to Jill Kelly’s powerful and engaging history of Zulu identity and authority, To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence, and Belonging in South Africa, 1800-1996. Kelly’s book travels from the late 1700s to the post-apartheid period, tracing how the Zulu concept of ukukhonza, or chiefly deference, developed and shifted to changing contexts. For Kelly, African men and women depended upon “both the physical security endangered in times of violence and the social security produced by the order of homesteads and chiefdoms that enabled familial and community well-being … New ways of seeing land and polities did not erase the old, but came to exist alongside them.” Ukukhonza existed as a social concept that bound people together before the rise of the Zulu empire, and it continued to evolve after the rise of Shaka and the later establishment of the British and South African states. The term was capacious and flexible enough to encompass a wide variety of social relationships, binding people in new and complicated ways during moments of crisis. Kelly examines the uses of this chiefly concept in a close study of the region surrounding KwaZulu-Natal’s Table Mountain, particularly around the village of Manqongqo, where we both studied isiZulu as graduate students. To Swim with Crocodiles is more than just a well-documented history; it’s also a testament to African cultural survival and adaptation over centuries.
As someone working on questions of blackness, indigeneity, and belonging, I absolutely needed Tiffany Lethabo King’s new book The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies; simultaneously haunting and arresting, beautiful and urgent. In it, King argues for a critical new formation in understanding black studies and native studies simultaneously and arrives at a powerful geologic metaphor. King offers:
the space of the shoal as simultaneously land and sea to fracture this notion that Black Diaspora studies is overdetermined by rootlessness and only metaphorized by water and to disrupt the idea that Indigenous studies is solely rooted and fixed in imaginaries of land as territory … The shoal creates a rupture and at the same time opens up analytical possibilities for thinking about Blackness as exceeding the metaphors and analytics of water and for thinking of Indigeneity as exceeding the symbol and analytic of land.
What would it mean to think of the fruitful and painful intersections of nativeness and blackness in North America? How is black racial terror simultaneous with and shaped by and through anti-indigenous genocide? King deftly explores these questions in stunning and meticulous prose, offering more than critical theory, but an arresting vision for understanding the many violences that shape our contemporary world.
Continuing on that theme, I’m still fascinated by and re-reading Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty is a queer, black Jewish culinary historian who wants to tell a new history of the American South, particularly through the brutal intimacies of food cooked in plantation kitchens. “The Old South is a forgotten Little Africa but nobody speaks of it that way,” offers Twitty by way of introduction. Part cookbook, part memoir, part culinary history of enslavement, The Cooking Gene explores what blackness—and specifically Africa—has offered the emerging settler American nation. Twitty doesn’t shy away from the daily violence of the plantation and the dehumanizing erasure of black labor and genius in everything from music to barbecue to agriculture. But his prose also offers a constant and gentle exploration of these complicated intersections of history, violence, and survival. From lovingly describing the process of cooking a morning meal to the uncomfortable encounter with an ancestor’s grave at a former planation, Twitty offers a spellbinding journey, every step of the way.
Finally, two very different novels sit on my bedside table at this moment, both offering something necessary for our heartbreaking and confusing year. First up is Kira Jane Buxton’s surreal and affecting Hollow Kingdom, which tells the story of a human apocalypse from the perspective of the animals left behind. Buxton’s primary narrator is a crow named S.T. raised from an early age around humans and who is trying to make sense of the continued destruction of the world he loves. Hollow Kingdom rises above the easy genre of “zombie apocalypse” by widening our perspective beyond humans to include how the rest of the planet puzzles over and struggles to comprehend the vanishing of such a terrifyingly destructive and dizzyingly creative force in the world. It’s well worth the time.
Of course, no list of reads for this year would be complete without returning to Octavia Butler’s prescient, horrifying, and deeply hopeful novel The Parable of the Talents. Butler’s story is set in a climate apocalyptic California, as a deeply privatized American state has splintered beyond repair. In the face of a deeply declining country, the populace turns to a cynical religious conman who promises to “make America great” (the book was published nearly two decades before Trump popularized the slogan). Butler dedicates considerable pages to considering just how and why people afraid of the destruction of their privileged hold on the world would embrace an openly religious fundamentalist fascism, but that is not the core of the book. Instead, the novel focuses on Lauren Olamina, a black woman with a radical vision of the future she titles “Earthseed.” The Parable of the Talents is less a story of cruel contemporary authoritarianism and more of a focus on the transformative power of hope, renewal, and change.
As Earthseed teaches, “Here we are—Energy, Mass, Life, Shaping life, Mind, Shaping Mind, God, Shaping God. Consider—We are born Not with purpose, But with potential.” As we’re surrounded by fear, panic and uncertainty, such potential is worth holding onto now more than ever.