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My Year of Reading Like Crazy--Sonja Franeta

My Year of Reading—2020

A highlight of the pandemic for me has been the opportunity to read many books, more than usual. I really went to town this year! According to the log on Goodreads, I read 135 books in 2020. I enjoyed myself immensely. I read what I wanted. I did not have a plan, except for doing the poetry book challenge in August—one book of poetry a day. In addition, I gravitated toward books by women of color, women in translation, immigrants, and queer people, along with various Russian and Soviet subjects and research books for my novel. One of the most unusual books I found along the latter lines was Russia and the Negro by Allison Blakely, which was very enlightening. In this blog, I am going to review the highlights of my reading year and recommend some authors along the way.

A great discovery was Aminatta Forna, a Scottish-born Sierra Leone author. Once I finished her novel Memory of Love, I was struck by how much this book affected me. The characters, the situation, the stories of the effects of war—would not leave my mind. I wanted to read more of her work. It was not only the characters, the setting, and situation that impressed me but the ideas expressed. How do people love and work in the midst of an agonizing civil war? Her insights about life in a West African country with the legacy of colonialism are so perceptive. Next, I picked up The Hired Man, another novel, which happened to be about the aftermath of the recent war in the former Yugoslavia—my family’s heritage. I was fascinated that Forna was able to take a subject far from her experience and ethnicity and intelligently investigate the roots of violence in a little town hurt by the Yugoslav war. Happiness spoke to me in a different way than the others. I love reading about other cultures in general, so all of Aminatta Forna’s novels have evoked a world to learn from. Insight about love and its twists and turns, about violence and its strong presence in our society, about justice both social and natural—I am so enamored of her work and what she chooses to write about.

Another treasure I found this year was the skillful and erotically fun novels of Fiona Zedde, a Jamaican-American lesbian romance writer, who now lives in Spain. Her romance and fantasy stories are relaxing and enjoyable, but also full of beautiful writing and perceptions, multicultural as well as multi-sexual. Her recent book is a real treat, called Femme Like Her, exploring this fascinating aspect of queer attraction. Fiona promises sequels to this intriguing and exciting relationship between two feminine-perceived and identified women. I would highly recommend Bliss which is an earlier romance about two women in Jamaica. Another favorite is the oddly titled To Italy with Love, a book of three novellas—wonderful romances and fabulous sex and also playfully thoughtful about gender identity. Fiona’s is cutting edge writing. I wish more people would be familiar with her work.

In August I had the honor of participating in the #SealeyChallenge. This was a collective reading and sharing of poetry books led by St. Thomas—American poet Nicole Sealey, in which the participants loosely promise to read a book of poetry a day, 30 books in the month of August. We also shared the books we were reading on Twitter and sometimes gave a few lines or our opinions in tweets. I learned so much about the current poetry scene and read so many new poets for me, including Nicole Sealey, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Honore Fanone Jeffers (who wrote a delightful biography in verse of Phillis Wheatley), Ada Limon, Hafizah Geter, Eve Ewing, Aimee Nezukhumatathil, and old favorites—Alejandra Pizarnik, Dionne Brand, James Baldwin, and Giaconda Belli (who I read in Spanish too). What a joy to read these books of poetry. I also have to say I enjoyed Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. Such excellent poetry that has led me to more poets, so I continue my habit of reading books of poetry, including chapbooks.

I think 2020 has been the year for black women writers. Long overdue, recognition of their important work has coursed through social media in the form of reviews and mention of publications and receiving prizes. The number of books and the highlighting of black women through Black Lives Matter and even following the #MeToo movement has been exceptional. I myself, like others in the movement wave, have made it a point to read women of color authors; in fact my year of reading began with the delightful Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo, who shared the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. It is truly a great read which I very much recommend.

Two authors who have specifically written about racism and black history are journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson and novelist Yaa Gyasi. These two women have made enormous contributions to the absorption of black history, occurring in our culture right now. Yaa Gyasi [pronounced Yah Jessie] wrote Homegoing, describing two sisters during the slave trade and what happened to their progeny. It is an amazing story of the diaspora—a journey of slaves from Africa to North America and other places. All this was beyond their control, but despite all odds, we read about unimaginable coincidences, even for those who stayed. Which sister’s children were luckier? Of course I had to read Yaa Gyasi’s new book Transcendent Kingdom, a different vein, about growing up in Alabama, about drug addiction, depression, religion, and about being a black woman in science. I am always astonished that Gyasi wrote her first novel, Homegoing, at the age of 26 with such wisdom and knowledge. Born in Ghana but having grown up in Alabama, she must have learned a lot from the stories she heard from her parents and others.

But, oh! Isabel Wilkerson, we can’t thank you enough for opening our eyes, for defining what “caste” means, for showing us the history of its entrenchment in the capitalist system, for your beautiful accessible writing, and for telling us the stories you painstakingly collected. Journalist Wilkerson’s first book The Warmth of Other Suns is storytelling at its finest. I have done many interviews and I produced a book of interviews of Siberian queers. I appreciate how much it took to tell the three stories of black migrants to the North. I imagine how many interviews she would have to have done to write this amazing historical account. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and The Warmth of Other Suns are both books about race and class and the system we live in that are so important to read and enjoy.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan writer who deserves the Nobel Prize, yet he has written about half of his 36 books in Kikuyu, his own language. In his great book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, he writes passionately about the need to move away from the English and European-centered cultures to local cultures and he advocates for translation to happen among the various African languages. It is a wonderful dream which I too support and wish for. Not all writing should succumb to the pressures of being translated into English. We have a multicultural world and we should support multilingual books.

Other books I would like to mention and recommend are:

Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, a story about a village in Armenia.

Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart by Kimberly Lojewski, imaginative and otherworldly stories with ghosts, alligators, puppets and other creatures, set in Florida’s wilds.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Ozono, a fascinating short lesbian coming out novel from Equatorial Guinea.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezukhumatathil, a beautiful memoir set in stories about nature and animals.

Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno, memoir and thought-provoking essays on gender identity

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci a fascinating and very creative queer immigrant novel.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips a kind of mystery set in Kamchatka, in the far east of Russia.

While I was immersed in books, the year was also full of special connections I made with writing friends and with students I had never met before. I helped organize the the Gulfport ReadOut 2020 on lesbian literature, which featured my colleague, writer Sheree Greer who leads the amazing group of black women writers called Kitchen Table Literary Arts. I participated in 4 weekly writing groups, in several book groups (Tombolo Books, Kitchen Table Literary Arts, Studio@620, and Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon), in readings as well, and taught two composition classes with some wonderful students. I was thrilled to read from my own books with my friend Elena Gusyatinskaya reading in Russian on a youtube series sponsored by Zarina Zabrisky of Globus Books. I anticipate another great reading year ahead. I hope you enjoy my little review of my favorites and may you have much good reading and good health ahead!


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