10 Favourite Books in 2020

10. Eve Out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi (tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman) – Mauritius

This novel was among the deliveries from the biiiiig Better World Books order I placed in March just as Melbourne’s earlier phase of restrictions began – and wow, it was a compelling distraction. It’s a short, harrowing story of four teenagers trying to survive the violence of their neighbourhood in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital. I follow the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, on Twitter and had high expectations for this book. It surpassed them.

 

9. Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett – Kiribati

The arrival of this extraordinary book was a rare and much-needed source of excitement deep into Melbourne’s second (ultra intense) lockdown in September. I came across Australian/Kiribati writer Marita Davies’s work while researching writers from the Pacific and was instantly keen to read this story of a child confronting life on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The importance of climate-related books – especially for younger generations – goes without saying, particularly during a week when extreme weather and coastal destruction yet again dominates headlines in Australia.

 

8. The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (tr. Brian FitzGibbon) – Iceland

It was a wintry evening in May when I read this gentle novel with my first foster cat on my lap (three more would follow across the two lockdowns!). The story very much transported me along the protagonist’s journey from his Icelandic home to a monastery rose garden in need of loving care. Quiet, slow and meditative, it felt like exactly what I needed at that point of this fast-paced and barely fathomable year.

 

7. Trans by Juliet Jacques – United Kingdom

I ordered this book in Verso’s December sale a year ago and read it as soon as it arrived in January. Juliet’s memoir is an incredibly honest account of the years that led up to her transition, weaving in many insights into the world of gender politics. The media industry comes across terribly and I wish things had progressed since, but I write this in the wake of two very transphobic opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald. [PS: if you’re looking for stunning fiction by a trans writer, I recommend jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty which I borrowed from Yarra Libraries a few weeks before this memoir.]

 

6. Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle) – Ecuador

This story collection came as a highly anticipated gift from Santiago-based translator Natascha Bruce for #WITMonth Book Swap, organised by Meytal Radzinski in August. When the book was first recommended to me I was slightly tentative, given the subject matter of domestic abuse being very close to home, but I’m really glad I read it – mainly for how astonishingly powerful a writer Ampuero is. I had been struggling to engage fully with books at the time (14 weeks into Melbourne’s second lockdown) and this collection shook me out of the stupor.

 

5. The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen (tr. Paul Kelly)Central African Republic

As it was only published in September, this was one of the very last books I read for my project – and it was, without a doubt, the most visually beautiful. It’s one of two children’s books featuring on my 2020 top ten (the other being Teaote and the Wall) and I think there’s something to be said for taking time away from screens/small font just to enjoy wonderful imagery and storytelling in fewer words. Narrated through the eyes of a young girl, the book follows a mother’s process towards getting pregnant and giving birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll. With these important words and expressive images, this book was totally worth the wait.

 

4. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E Kramer)Macedonia

This was among the most immersive books I sank into this year. After hearing only good things, I read Dimkovska’s between Melbourne’s two lockdowns while I was on a weekend trip to the Dandenong Ranges and predictably got pretty lost in the pages! The story is told by a conjoined twin raised in Skopje, who is venturing towards personal independence and romantic love – through communist Yugoslavia and further afield. A memorable book that has stayed with me.

 

3. The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)Suriname

This book was bound to be in my top three of the year – I was completely addicted to the story back in early March. We were still working in offices at that point, and I was reading it right through my lunchbreaks. In fact, my review reminded me that a colleague even comforted me one break when I was visibly upset by a plot twist! Set in the 18th century, it’s a tale of love and cruelty under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch Empire. I’ve recommended it to friends since and apparently they’ve been 100% absorbed by it too!

 

2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia AlvarezDominican Republic

When people ask me about my very favourite books since I began this blog, In The Time of Butterflies always springs to mind. The story reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas’) who symbolised hope and defiance during their country’s dictatorship from 1938 to 1994. To quote my own review, “my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it”. It was also a great chance to learn more about the women whose legacy sparked the 16 Days of Activism – a campaign that I focused on promoting in my human rights work.

 

1. Cantoras by Carolina de RobertisUruguay

There’s no way to put into words quite how much I loved this novel. Set at the time of the Uruguyan dictatorship in the 1970-80s, this is a breathtaking story about five women who together explore the ways we can love one another – from erotic passion to close friendship to unconditional familial love. The book not only made me laugh and cry, but also left me fundamentally wanting to become a better reader and writer. If this sounds hyperbolic, take a look at the book’s Goodreads page – I’m far from the only one who was profoundly affected by Cantoras!

 

Read my full list of reviews since mid-2018

 

Le Déserteur by Hélène Kaziende

Text of Le Deserteur against blue sky

a nutshell: in a letter addressed to Africa from Samzi Dikinfa of Erquifa, this short yet immensely powerful piece of prose shares an insight into the complexities around why someone might leave a homeland – not necessarily by choice

a line: I’m leaving, tired of aborted promises and murdered suns” (“je m’en vais, lassé des promesses avortées et des soleils assassinés”)

an image: I found myself moved by the portrayal of being surrounded by ‘professional’ drunks, while the self-described deserter thirsts not for alcohol but rather for a bit of justice and freedom

a thought: I wondered whether there was any significance to the date of the letter, 15 August 1990, and discovered through the internet that it was on this day that at least 150 people were killed in clashes between the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party, South Africa

a fact: this story won a prize in a competition by radio station Africa No. 1 and features in the 1992 collection Kilomètre 30, which I managed to get a copy of through Better World Books – its arrival was quite poignant, as it was the very final book to arrive for my entire project

want to read Kaziende’s writing? visit here

Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

Black Stone

a nutshell: described as one of the ‘foremothers of Pasifika poetry’, Molisa published this poetry collection in 1983 with black stone as a reference to vanua, i.e. Vanuatu’s black solidified lava base

a line: “Black Stone | bird of wealth | solid bedrock | dwelling of death” – from the titular poem ‘Black Stone’

an image: in ‘Victim of Foreign Abuse’ I was struck by Molisa’s description of natives stateless on their own land while exploiter colonisers milked her dry

a thought: my interpretation of Molisa’s poetry was helped greatly by Selina Tusitala Marsh’s article in Cordite – Marsh notes that, like black stone, Molisa has been a foundational creative & critical force in the formation of Vanuatu as a postcolonial nation

a fact: in 1977 Molisa became the first woman from Vanuatu to gain a university degree – a Bachelor of Arts at the University of the South Pacific

want to read Black Stone? visit here

Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya

Singing away the hunger - inside cover with photo of Mpho

a nutshell: these are stories from the extraordinary life of Lesotho elder and matriarch Nthunya, stretching from her birth in 1930 to the conversations that formed this book in the late 1990s

a line: “Maybe if there is one day enough for the hunger to stop, we can stop being so jealous of one another. If the jealousy is no more, we can begin to have dreams for one another. We can build something new”

an image: I liked how chapter 11 took its title from a motto in Lesotho – khotso, pula, nala, that is, peace, rain, prosperity

a thought: as so often throughout this project, I had reason to feel ashamed of my heritage – before independence, every man (no matter how poor) had to pay tax to the British or he was imprisoned; Nthunya’s family was so pleased when they no longer had to pay that they named a child born in the year of independence ‘Muso’, meaning Government

a fact: through her job as a domestic worker Nthunya became friends with American writer Kendall while she was studying on a Fulbright scholarship, and it was Kendall’s idea to document Nthunya’s life – this autobiography is a collaboration between the pair

want to read Singing Away the Hunger? visit here

Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir

yellow book against brick wall

a nutshell: in this moving autobiography Kassindja records how she fled Togo aged 17 ahead of kakia (female genital mutilation) and a forced marriage, ending up in the US where she spent a horrifying 16 months in detention

a line: “I’d been lost, misplaced, like luggage gone astray”

an image: Kassindja’s memories of prison guards mistreating detainees often evoked shocking scenes, particularly how she was ostracised under entirely false suspicion of TB

a thought: among the most poignant moments in this book, for me, were Kassindja’s reunions with other women detained while seeking asylum – her story is full of powerful friendships and unconditional love often in less likely corners, for instance the commitment of her cousin Rahuf whom she hadn’t seen since childhood

a fact: 97% of detained immigrants are people of colour even though 5 of the the top 20 countries of origin for illegal immigrants are Caucasian – it isn’t that white-skinned illegal immigrants don’t come to the US, it’s that they don’t get put in detention

want to read Do They Hear You When You Cry? visit here

History Shelves by Sassy Ross

Sassy Ross

a nutshell: this extraordinary poem explores a father-daughter relationship, opening with a frail memory of volumes kept and closing with a frail memory of volumes lost – it’s a poem whose every line is exquisite & complex & powerful

a line: “I, | a junkie for words I could not pronounce”

an image: in the first verse the poet portrays her father skimming hieroglyphic texts, and I loved how she described his thumb as a hummingbird hovering above the page

a thought: I was deeply moved by this poem despite feeling like I was only scraping the surface of its multilayered meanings, then I learned that Ross’s father struggled with addiction – only then did I realise why I relate so strongly with her fears about being cut from the same cloth and her line about how her dad fought demons in his sleep

a fact: born in Castries, St Lucia, Ross grew up speaking a mixture of English and a French patois – she migrated to the US aged 10 and began writing poetry while studying at Pennsylvania State University

want to read ‘History Shelves’? visit here

The Dancer from Khiva by Bibish (tr. Andrew Bromfield)

cover on kindle (back of plaited hair) with fern in background

a nutshell: written while Bibish was a street vendor in a province of Moscow, this unique & spirited memoir records an Uzbek woman’s determination to live independently despite all odds

a line: “The state is like an X-ray machine, it looks right through me”

an image: with the moon in Central Asia shining brightly at night, Bibish recalls how she used to read a wide range of books while everyone slept (despite her mother’s scolding)

a thought: the author vividly documents her struggles to earn enough money to provide food for her sons, such as her raw despair at being unable to buy bread to ease their hunger as late as 10pm – this evoked horrible parallels with the current situation in my homeland, the UK, where parliamentarians refused to allow meals to be given to children needing food over the upcoming holidays during the pandemic

a fact: Bibish shared many fascinating details about her childhood in a kishlak, and particularly moving was her account of the forced labour & production quota system that pervaded Uzbekistan’s cotton fields – when I googled this I was horrified to learn from HRW that it continues to this day

want to read The Dancer from Khiva? visit here

‘Melting Sun’ by Laila Neihoum (tr. D Mohamed Hassan and Neihoum)

a nutshell: over five short verses Libyan writer Neihoum probes the notion of familial expectations against a setting of unnaturalness, from an unturning tide to an eclipsed noon

a line: “What if I had not been my parents’ sculpture”

an image: halfway through the poem, the narrator faces an abandoned cave where a tear is the only water spilled into emptiness

a thought: I couldn’t help but pick up on how the poem’s first three words, things fall apart, echo the title of Chinua Achebe’s debut novel published in 1958 (over forty years before this poem was written), suggesting a broader significance to its themes – namely the influence of colonialism on African families

a fact: Neihoum was the first writer from her country to be accepted to join the International Writers Programme at the University of Iowa – she wrote a poetic manifesto for Libya which can be read on Words Without Borders

want to read ‘Melting Sun’? visit here

Dalai Lama, My Son by Diki Tsering (ed. Khedroob Thondup)

a nutshell: this fascinating memoir of the 14th Dalai Lama’s mother was compiled by her grandson, who took up the mantle of his late sister Yangzom Doma’s work in recording their grandmother’s life history – born in 1901 to a peasant family, Tsering reminisced orally in Tibetan while her granddaughter wrote and translated her words into English

a line: “once I began to tell myself I was Diki Tsering, the name that was given to me on my wedding day and means ‘ocean of luck’, a kind of rebirth kindled all the forces of determination within me. I was no longer afraid, and I willingly challenged fate, determined not to be submerged by the tide”

an image: Tsering’s portrayals of the kyirong (ghost) that caused havoc in households across Tibet were unwaveringly spooky, from episodes of upturning sacks of peas to incidents of killing horses

a thought: to me, this book’s strongest elements were the intricate passages about traditional Tibetan customs – particularly around weddings, though unsurprisingly the status of women’s rights were abysmal in the early 20th century and Tsering describes toiling up to 21 hours a day for her in-laws’ household

a fact: I was shocked to read the author’s note that Tsering gave birth to 16 children yet only seven of them survived beyond infancy – at one point she notes that she always controlled herself when her children died since tears were “hail on a dead child’s face”

want to read Dalai Lama, My Son? visit here

The Palauan Perspectives by Hermana Ramarui

Extract from 'Being a Palauan' against sea backdrop

a nutshell: written by a Palauan poet & educator, this extraordinary collection of poetry explores identity, freedom and colonialism

a line: “Our folly is that | We try to recreate | By trying to duplicate | The impractical past | Whose songs are | Out of tune” (‘Palauan Culture’)

an image: in Ramarui’s pages-long & astonishing poem ‘Freedom’, she suggests the US’s colonial approach to Micronesia was like a fishing expedition and asks the coloniser to throw its golden hooks away

a thought: I was intrigued by the poet’s idea of Palauan culture as a state of being – a centre in itself, hanging onto nothing – and her observation that people cease to be Palauan as soon as they fear new learning (‘Being a Palauan’)

a fact: Ramarui worked for over twenty years in Palau’s Ministry of Education and made huge contributions to preserving Palauan language & culture; she later began working on a children’s reading series and colouring book series

want to read The Palauan Perspectives? visit here