2022: The Year in Books

It is the end of 2022. Here, as always, is a brief summary of the books I read this year, organised (inadequately) by geography and genre, and even more inadequately, by a rough rating system. This year was marked by a foray into contemporary Japanese literature (as I was traveling to that country) – in particular, Japanese crime fiction, which has a rather distinct and compelling identity of its own. There was also a fairly heavy dose of science fiction, which – as you’ll see – was a bit patchy. Read on!

A. Fiction: Africa

  1. Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, The House of Rust (****): A little difficult to classify, but this Kenyan tale about a girl, her father, a talking cat, and assorted sea demons is perhaps closest to magical realism. Lyrical and atmospheric prose, and an unforgettable protagonist. This one won the inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin prize later in the year.
  2. Okwiri Oduor, Things They Lost (****): Also from Kenya, Things They Lost is a story at the interstices of the human and spirit worlds, and centred around the relationship between a daughter and her mother. It’s loose, non-linear structure is a bit similar to House of Rust, and there are deeper similarities as well, in style and form.
  3. Ayodele Olofintuade, Swallow (****): One of my stand-out reads of the year. Swallow is a queer historical fiction/fantasy novel, set in early-19th century Nigeria. It follows the intertwined stories of two women – Efunsetan Aniwura and Efunporonye – who are due to be married to each other, before an act of violence by Efunsetan’s brother (at the instigation of his Christian missionary teacher) disrupts the marriage, and sends them on separate paths: Efunsetan to the city of Abeokuta, where she must make her own place amongst feuding warlords, and Efunporonye to a loveless marriage which she must nonetheless negotiate to wield power of her own. In the backdrop is the steadily rising power of the British Empire, an early prelude to years of colonial domination. By the way, this one’s published locally – by the Nigerian publisher, Masobe Books.
  4. NoViolet Bulawayo, Glory (****): The story of post-colonial Zimbabwe, except that it’s all animals instead of human beings. Parts of it felt a little on the nose – the names of historical massacres, for example, were unchanged – but it was the distancing device of using animals as protagonists that allowed Bulawayo to be so direct, without losing the narrative spirit.

B. Fiction: Japan

  1. Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (*****): My introduction to contemporary Japanese fiction was through Keigo Higashino’s crime novel, which was mesmerising (one of those rare books that I read literally in a single sitting, from 8PM to 3AM). Unlike other crime novels, in The Devotion of Suspect X, the reader is privy to the murder, how it happens, and who commits it – and it’s what comes after (including the psychology of the various individuals involved) that makes it so thrilling. The only slight complaint is that the last two pages of the book are a bit of a let-down, the final ending a little un-earned.
  2. Keigo Higashino, The Silent Parade (****): My second Higashino – you can tell how much I enjoyed the first! Didn’t quite hit the same heights (to be fair, it would be difficult to!), but still so very gripping – Higashino does psychology so very well.
  3. Yoko Tawada, The Emissary (***): A whimsical, post-apocalyptic climate fiction novel where childhood and old age are reversed; fascinating in parts, but didn’t quite hang together for me.
  4. Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold (***): Brilliant set of premises, innovative shifts in point of view, and then let down by the actual stories being so milquetoast. Almost makes you feel like grabbing the author and shaking them for wasting such good ideas.
  5. Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders (*****): More Japense crime fiction – this time, a classic locked-room murder mystery. One of the most stunning reveals I’ve ever read.
  6. Seishi Yokomizo, The Village of Eight Graves (****): Same author. This one was more of a thriller than a murder mystery. Beautifully plotted and paced, but there’s a whiff of misogyny running through it that’s a little hard to overlook
  7. Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo (****): A soft and moving – but slightly inconsistent – slice-of-life story about loneliness, late-stage love, and belonging.
  8. Yukio Mishima, Thirst for Love (***): Mishima’s portrayal of a one-sided love that cannot even make itself unintelligible because of differences in social class is sharp, and with many memorable lines and acute observations about both human beings and social relations – but is let down by an unsatisfactory, and *very* un-earned ending.

C. Fiction: South Asia

  1. Annie Zaidi, City of Incident (****): A very enjoyable set of twelve interconnected vignettes, set along the railway line in an unnamed city, but which is quite evidently Bombay. I reviewed it for The Hindu.
  2. Intizar Hussain, Day and Dastaan (***): I don’t know if it was the translation, or something else, but I just couldn’t get going with this one – although I did find passages in Dastaan quite beautiful.
  3. Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (*****): Arguably my best read of the year. A story old from the perspective of a murdered Sri Lankan photographer of the Civil War, who is stumbling through an afterlife-y limbo, trying to find out who is responsible for his murder. Through his eyes, as through a mirror darkly, we see the violence, the brutality, and the absurdity of the War. Reminiscent in parts of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, but very much its own novel: its style – humorous, irreverent, light as breath on glass – makes its subject even more searing and haunting than it already is.

D. Theatre

  1. Amy Herzog, After the Revolution (****): I saw a theatrical performance of this play in Hamburg, and then read the play itself. Great on family relations; not so great on its occasional caricatures of the left.

E. Genre: Fantasy

  1. Shelley Parker-Chan, She Who Became the Sun (****): One of the most talked-about fantasy novels of 2021, it swept quite a few awards this year. An enjoyable historical fantasy loosely modelled on 13th century Imperial Chinese and Mongol history.
  2. Marlon James, Moon Witch, Spider King (****): This series is writing fantasy against the grain, in a very unique way; the flip side is that it demands a lot from the reader. I wrote a fairly detailed review in Strange Horizons.
  3. Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (****): Coming rather late in life to Pratchett – this is only my third – but better late than never! It was interesting to see Vimes and Vetinari as near first-drafts of their later fully developed selves, in this novel.

F. Genre: Science fiction

  1. Saad Hossain, Cyber Mage (****): Final Fantasy, climate change, djinns, a near-future Dhaka, topped off with a generous helping of Snark – Hossain is as uniquely entertaining as ever. Reviewed here.
  2. Tade Thompson, Far From the Light of Heaven (****): A locked-room murder mystery in space from a very accomplished writer; definitely had its moments, but not all of it came together for me.
  3. Adam Roberts, The This (****): Near-future SF dealing with the intersection of social media and the hive mind, from a reliably, well, reliable writer.
  4. SJ Morden, The Flight of the Aphrodite (****): One of the few hard-SF novels I read this year; the book was a good one, but I suspect I no longer enjoy that sub-genre so much.
  5. Ryka Aoki, Light from Uncommon Stars (N/A): A rare DNF (at p. 90). i could not get into this one at all, because everything about it – from the politics to the aesthetic to the geography to the pop culture references – is so heavily *American*, and the narrative tension and dramatic moments are so embedded in that American-ness, that there just did not seem a way in for a reader who isn’t equally steeped in that context.
  6. Alastair Reynolds, Inhibitor Phase (*****): Oh my gosh, Alastair Reynolds. Superb SF. Filled with wonder, awe, and existential political stakes. Everything you want from the genre.
  7. Alastair Reynolds, Eversion (****): This was different Reynolds – more time-loops, less space opera, but still great. Review forthcoming in Interzone.
  8. Jo Harkin, Tell Me An Ending (*****): This only came across my radar because of the Run Along the Shelves Blog, and I’m glad I did – Tell Me An Ending is amongst the best SF novels I read in 2022. It is among the most subtle and sensitive exploration of memory – and the connection between memory and identity – that you will find in the genre.
  9. Agnes Gomillon, The Record Keeper (****): The first in a series, The Record Keeper is a post-apocalyptic ambiguous dystopia, in the mould of Octavia Butler. It has many of the familiar themes of the sub-genre (rigid post-apocalypse hierarchies, scrambled memories, violent suppression of dissent, rebellion); it is not, however, a derivative work, and is well worth a read.
  10. Agnes Gomillon, Seed of Cain (****): The second book in the series, carries forward the story well. Review forthcoming in Interzone.
  11. Vauhini Vara, The Immortal King Rao (***): Not marketed as SF, but undoubtedly SF. Brings together a generational family saga, an immigrant and coming-of-age novel, a meditation on the promise and peril of technology, a critique of corporate power, and an ambiguous speculative dystopia. The novel follows the intertwined biographies of King Rao—a Dalit child born in the village of Kothapalli, who rises to become the leader of the world’s most powerful technology company, before an equally precipitous fall—and his daughter, Athena, who remembers her own life while being held in a prison cell on charges of murder. Reviewed here.
  12. Anil Menon, The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun (***): A set of interconnected near-future SF vignettes set in India. Defies gender classification – there is even a narrative non-fiction piece tucked among the stories – but definitely spec-fic. The eponymous story is particularly good. Reviewed here.
  13. Mercurio D Rivera, Wergen: The Alien Love War (****): Read this as part of my Arthur C. Clarke shortlist review; a fresh take on some well-worn first contact tropes, with a few very sharp observations about love.
  14. Harry Josephine Giles, Deep Wheel Orcadia (*****): THE most unique piece of SF I read this year – an SF space opera told in verse, and in fact, told in the Orkney language, with an English “translation” accompanying it: the result is something very special, which I discuss in the Clarke review.
  15. Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun (***): One problem with a literary fiction writer writing genre is that unless you’ve read extensively in genre, you end up rehashing ideas and tropes that are two decades old. Ishiguro is, of course, a brilliant writer, but this book is an excellent example of just this phenomenon. Also Clarke Award reading.
  16. Courttia Newland, A River Called Time (***): Clarke Award reading. Just not for me.
  17. Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Elder Race (****): A science-fantasy novella by one of my favourite writers working in the field today: Adrian Tchaikovsky. It takes the classic SF theme of a more technologically-advanced civilisation grappling with the question of when – or when not – to “intervene” in the affairs of another (think Prime Directive, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Hard To Be A God, some parts of the Culture) – and gives it a new, fresh avatar. The Elder Race stands out because of Tchaikovsky’s deft and sympathetic handling of one of the protagonists’ interior landscape: Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist stuck on the planet that he is supposed to be studying, (involuntarily) cut off from communicating with his own society, treated as a wizard by the people he is among, and asked by a rebellious princess to help slay a “demon.” Unsurprisingly, he grapples continuously with depression, loneliness, self-doubt, and often paralysing indecision about what is the right thing to do. This focus on interiority, along with an inversion of many classic fantasy tropes (princess, demon, wizard) makes this a classic Tchaikovsky read: compelling and memorable.
  18. Joanna Russ, The Female Man (****): Given that parts of this book feel radical even now, I cannot even begin to imagine how radical it must have been for its time (the 1970s). Lots of exploration about the gender binary and gender fluidity, at least a part of which (for obvious reasons) has aged badly, but overall, the immense ambition of this novel is breathtaking, and there are paragraphs that are like cut glass.
  19. Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark (***): Another set of interconnected vignettes (there were a lot of these this year!) dealing with the aftermath of the climate crisis. This was the opening text for the recently-begun Delhi Science Fiction Reading Circle.
  20. Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (*****): What can I possibly say about this that hasn’t already been said before?

G. Non-Fiction: Memoir/Biography

  1. Flora Veit-Wilde, They Called You Dambudzo (****): A really unique memoir about a really unique writer who died far too young, written by his former lover. The insights that this book has into the character of Dambudzo Marechera are breathtaking – and having read this, you understand his writing so much better. Reviewed here.
  2. Thomas Grant, The Mandela Brief; Sidney Kentridge and the Trials of Apartheid (****): A moving – and at times, heart-stopping – book about the life and times of Sidney Kentridge, defence counsel for years to the apartheid regime’s most determined opponents (including Nelson Mandela). Reviewed here.
  3. Pheroze Nowrojee, A Kenyan Journey (*****): A generational memoir about the story of an Indian immigrant family in Kenya, and 20th century Kenyan history through the eyes of Indian immigrants. Deals with difficult and complex questions about home and exile, immigration and love for a country. This was beautifully written, and the ending brought tears to my eyes. There’s a long review on my Goodreads page.
  4. Hiwot Teffera, Tower in the Sky (*****): A beautiful, moving, and ultimately tragic memoir about the Ethiopian revolutionary students’ moment in the 1970s. Reviewed here.
  5. Narayani Basu, Allegiance (****): A fascinating book about three forgotten men in the history of India’ freedom struggle: the protagonists of the INA.
  6. Robert A. Caro, Working (*****): Absolutely riveting memoir from one of the great biographical writers, with insights into his own method. There was one particular reconstruction of Lyndon Johnson’s childhood home that is one of the most unforgettable narrative non-fiction pieces of writing that I’ve come across.
  7. Cade Metz, Genius Makers (****): An immensely readable account of the 20th-century history of Artificial Intelligence, told from the perspectives of some of the major protagonists.

H. Non-fiction: City Writing

  1. Kirsty Bell, Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin (****): A unique social history of Berlin, best read while you’re walking down the Landwehr Canal towards Anhalterbahnof. Bell weaves together a personal memoir of loss and a broken marriage, the history of her own century-and-a-half old house on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, and the modern history of Berlin itself, into a seamless narrative. Reviewed here.
  2. John Dougill: Kyoto: A Literary and Cultural History (*****): This is an example of the very best the genre of travel writing has to offer: written with love, humility, and also with great attention to the craft of language. The structure of this book introduces you to the many different facets of Kyoto (city of tea, city of noh, city of geishas etc), and the way Dougill breaks up information, it never gets overwhelming. This book enriched my brief stay in Kyoto immeasurably.

I. Non-fiction: The natural world

  1. James Bridle, Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence (****): This book has polarised opinion a bit, but I found it a wonderfully gripping foray into various kinds of intelligence – from mycelia to octopi – that compels you to re-orient your own mental landscape and conceptual categories.


  1. Errico Malatesta, Anarchy (*****): Anarchists aren’t supposed to have canons, but this OG exposition of the anarchist philosophy surely has to rank as a must-read if you’re looking to understand what anarchism is all about.
  2. Defiance: Anarchist Statements Before Judge and Jury (****): What it says on the tin. From Kropotkin and the Paris Commune to the modern Greek anarchists, and everything in between.
  3. Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (****): Occasionally opaque and hard to follow, but so many fascinating insights both about the Paris Commune and about Rimbaud: ruminations on time, language, metaphor, the history and evolution of vagabondage laws, and so much more. Worth the occasional periods of incomprehension (especially if you don’t know French, and therefore miss some of the finer linguistic analysis).

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“Chasing the elusive past”: Hiwot Teffera’s Tower in the Sky

“You will find them at bus stations pretending to read newspapers, telling the time, scratching the tips of their noses. In a cafe, they order either tea or coffee. They whisper among themselves. They look shabby – girls with Afros, netelas, and sneakers, and boys with worn out jeans and sneakers.”

  • A State official’s description of the members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP)

In 1974, the regime of the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in a revolution. Left-wing student movements played a significant part in the revolution, primarily through the vehicle of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (the EPRP). However, soon after the revolution, the military junta – the Derg – seized power. When the EPRP condemned the Derg as standing in the way of a true people’s democracy, the stage was set for a bloody conflict. After an ill-fated attempt by the EPRP to assassinate Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1976, the military government unleashed a full-scale war against the EPRP. Thousands of cadres were imprisoned, tortured, executed, and disappeared, in a campaign known as the “Red Terror.”

Hiwot Teffera was a young woman who, as an 18-year-old student, was recruited into the ranks of the EPRP. Tower in the Sky is her memoir of the time: it takes the reader through the heady campus politics of the Addis Ababa of 1974, the euphoria accompanying the initial overthrow of Haile Selassie, the EPRP’s dream of building a free and egalitarian society (the eponymous “Tower in the Sky”), its gradual descent into doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism in the teeth of the assault by the Derg, carrying on revolutionary activities under intense repression, and finally, after several miraculous escapes, the author’s own capture, torture, and nine-year-long imprisonment by the military junta. Reading this book reminded me, at times, of Ibrahim Abdelmeguid’s Clouds Over Alexandria, a fictionalised account of the Egyptian student movement of 1973, which suffered a similar fate; the difference, of course, is that Tower in the Sky is a true story.

Getachew Maru

For a significant part of the book, the protagonist is not only Hiwot herself, but also Getachew Maru, a student-leader of the EPRP, who recruits Hiwot into the party through the means of a Marxist reading circle, mentors her, and eventually becomes her lover. Tower in the Sky is, in some ways, the story of Getachew Maru, and the story of Getachew Maru is the story of the doomed Ethiopian Revolution, and indeed, of all doomed left-wing revolutions. From the beginning, Hiwot portrays Maru as open-minded and free-willed, qualities that are of great use in the initial days of the revolution, but start to become increasingly inconvenient to the EPRP’s politburo as the conflict with the Derg intensifies. Maru’s public disagreement with the EPRP’s policy of urban warfare against the Derg proves to be the last straw: he is taken into custody, interrogated, and finally shot dead, in circumstances that are never fully revealed. Like the great Salvadoran revolutionary poet, Roque Dalton, Maru dies not at the hands of the tyrannical regime that he is fighting, but by his own comrades.

This is a familiar, and familiarly saddening story: of an initially idealistic revolutionary Party that reifies into increasingly authoritarian structures, engages in a series of missteps and mistakes that only lead to further authoritarianism (a vicious circle), and eventually turns on its own. What makes Tower in the Sky particularly poignant, however, is that all of this shatters a very real love between two very real people – Hiwot and Getachew. The intensity of Hiwot’s feelings – undimmed through the years – are evident from her choice of epigraph to the book, which are lines from Khalil Gibran:

If in the twilight of memory we should
meet once more, we shall speak again
together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.
And if our hands should meet in another
dream we shall build another tower in the sky.

This tearing melancholy drapes the pages of Tower in the Sky, turning events, numbers, statistics into the rhythms of joy and pain. We laugh with Hiwot when she describes how the student revolutionaries – the “Revos” – consider romance a frivolous pursuit (and initially, Getachew is not exempt from this), leading couples on the university campus to find sanctuary beside the magnificently-named “kissing pool”; we share her initial heady rush of joining the EPRP and being integrated into its underground activities; we smile conspiratorially when she reveals how she never found Lenin as interesting as Marx, but didn’t dare say it to Getachew (who would, ironically, lose his life to the Leninist logic of democratic centralism); we nod in recognition when she writes that Getachew “put an edge on my sensibility”; we hold our breath through the long slow-burn that is their romance, interrupted by the EPRP sending them to different parts of the country for revolutionary work, and by the surveillance and repression of the Derg (“… our love was as underground as the organisation we belonged to”); and the brutal – and untimely – snapping of their relationship with Getachew’s murder comes as a numbing shock, a disbelief that is hard to shake off even after you put the book down. So clear, sharp, and real is the Getachew of Tower in the Sky, that his loss feels personal.

Hiwot Teffera

The poignancy of Tower in the Sky is sharpened by Hiwot’s clear-eyed self-awareness of her own intellectual and emotional trajectory. At the height of the revolutionary movement, she writes about how her “wandering soul finally found an abode”, and how the struggle was “my present, my future, my life.” At the heart of this is her loyalty to the Party – on more than one occasion, she compares her love for Getachew with her love for the Party. But what is striking is that even on Getachew’s expulsion – and eventual murder – Hiwot’s faith in the Party, although shaken, remains intact. More than once she asks herself if it is even possible for the Party to make a mistake; she lays bare before the reader her own rationalisations (“it’s not the Party, just a clique within it”), and her own refusal to acknowledge a fact that would bring her own world-view crumbling down around her.

It is only in the solitude and loneliness of prison – as she hears daily news of the executions and massacres of comrades, thanks to the Party’s missteps – that Hiwot’s faith in both the Party and doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism breaks. “But my mind connived against my cherished Party,” she writes, in one of the most haunting passages of the book, “and slowly I tore up the sacred veil draping my eyes: without illusions, myths, and sacred taboos surrounding it, to my horror, it became just an ordinary bunch of people trying to find their way in the dark.” Notably, however, this does not lead her to disown or condemn her own past: Hiwot remains kind to her earlier self, understanding the dream of the tower in the sky, and to a past that she retains respect and admiration for, but she is now able to look at the Party “without nostalgia or regrets.” It is a truly remarkably personal journey.

There are parts of this book that read like a thriller: before her eventual incarceration, Hiwot cheats death and capture multiple times: on some occasions through her presence of mind (pretending to be a recently-bereaved wife to avoid detention), and sometimes through sheer luck (avoiding a patrol by a matter of minutes). False identities, fake papers, disguises, police informers, love and loyalty under the most extreme of circumstances, prison life – the book has it all. There are moments of pathos, but also, moments of humour (the old woman-prisoner who sits underneath the volleyball net while the prisoners play, refuses to move, and pricks the ball every time it lands on her, is an image that will never leave me).

But in the end, history, as Auden says, can say alas, but can neither help nor pardon. The generation of the 1970s is often called the Golden Generation, and the Lost Generation, and in the pages of this book, you can see why: the cast of characters that wander onto the stage (and wander off it) are remarkable individuals – fiercely intelligent, empathetic, and caring, with most of them sacrificing everything (including, ultimately, their lives) for that elusive “tower in the sky.” And at the end of this book, you are left with a feeling of emptiness and a sense of futility, for how these lives were wasted. As Hiwot describes the feeling of the exile:

“Wherever they lived, many of them became eternal strangers to the world and to themselves. Devoid of dreams and ideals, they lost meaning in the present or the future. They kept chasing the elusive past.”

Tower in the Sky is not only about a crucial moment in modern Ethiopian history, but it is one of the most beautiful accounts that you will ever read of love, loss, and revolution. Strongly recommended.

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“The will to be different”: Kirsty Bell’s Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin

City-writing is always a challenge, and writing about one of the most over-determined cities of the world is particularly challenging. For example, what is left to write about Paris that can still unsettle a reader’s sedimented expectations, after all the novels, memoirs, and films? How is one to write about Paris so that the account will not seem one or more of trite, repetitive, intentionally contrarian, or just trying-too-hard-to-be-fresh (for an answer, see Eric Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris!)?

In Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin, Kirsty Bell take another approach towards documenting the political geography of one of those heavily over-determined cities: Berlin. When you say “Berlin”, the mind already conjures up a host of images: the Wall, of course, occupies disproportionate mental real estate, but there’s also Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary Berlin, Berlin of the poets and artists in the Weimar era (the Berlin of Berlin Alexanderplatz), Nazi Berlin (Berlin of the bunkers), 1960s hipster (West) Berlin, and finally, the Berlin of contemporary imagination: a palimpsest with each era written over the previous one, but a palimpsest that comes before you – as in the case of Paris – more or less fully-formed.

In this context, however, Bell weaves together a personal memoir of loss and a broken marriage, the history of her own century-and-a-half old house on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, and the modern history of Berlin itself (indeed, the name Undercurrents is both literal and metaphorical: literal for the number of canals and rivers that flow through and underneath Berlin, and metaphorical for all things beneath the surface, whether it is the history of one human life, or the history of a city). The book thus moves through three frames: Bell’s life in Berlin, the story of a house and those who lived in it, and the story of a city, with each intersecting with, and informing, the other two. There is, of course, a risk in this approach, a conflation in which individual events may get imbued with a significance that they do not seem to merit, or world-historical events uneasily forced into the frame of an individual life, and this risk is especially great when thinking about a city like Berlin, where memory – and its suppression – plays such a crucial role. But for the most part, Bell succeeds in avoiding these traps, holding the frames in tension – albeit generative tension – with each other.

Through the history of the house and its inhabitants, we get an impressionistic view of the economic, social, and cultural development of Berlin over a century-and-a-half: for example, Bell contextualises the seemingly “neutral” architecture of old Berlin buildings – a “front half” that has more light, and a “back half” that has less – within the industrial era, where the back half was rented out at lower rates to (predominantly migrant) workers, while the front half was rented out to wealthier Berliners. Although the idea was to place the rich and poor in proximity with each other, the effect, of course, was a hardening of class divisions.

The Landwehr Canal, primary site of Undercurrents. Photo by Lienhard Schulz.

Then there are the house’s owners: tracing that genealogy through Berlin’s city archives, Bell finds – to her discomfiture – that within the same family that owned the house in the early-20th century, one of two brothers was a paid-up member of the Nazi party even before Hitler’s ascent to Chancellorship, while the other remained absent from all National Socialist records. Through genealogy, Bell explores the impact of the Nazi years upon the city (“Each family, each individual was forced to define their priorities in the face of a regime which allowed for no weighing up of personal ethics or differentiation” (p. 147), and its lasting impact ever since, in terms of memory and trauma. It is in these parts of the book that Bell is at her most empathetic – and evocative: “The Berliners who survived the war years were trapped in a victim-perpetrator quandary where innocence was sucked down into the muddy waters of complicity and ankles were bound by implication.” (p. 184)

Historical vignettes – and characters – walk off and on Bell’s stage. Radiating outwards from her home, we learn about the ruined Anhalterbahnof station, which was once the pride of industrialising Germany, gateway to both North and South – but also the place from where the death trains set out for the concentration camps during the Holocaust (a memorial plaque near the ruin testifies to this). But moreover, as Bell tells us, right behind the ruined station was the Hotel Exelsior, from whose rooms Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht started and edited the newspaper of the Spartacus League. Historical eras separated by just over a decade, but a world apart: through the medium of (political) geography, the book moves a little judderingly between times and places, mirroring Berlin’s own discontinuous history. As Bell notes about Berlin’s relationship with history: “Many bridges to the immediate past were broken and only certain parts were allowed to be remembered.” (p. 190)

The ruins of Anhalterbahnof, with the former Hotel Exelsior – now an apartment block – behind. Photograph by Tonythepixel

The only somewhat unconvincing parts of the book involve various references to feng shui, and spiritual energy that Bell tries to weave into her three frames. It is at these places that the personal and the intimate threatens to overwhelm the narrative somewhat: the importance of feng shui to Bell’s ability to make sense of her own life notwithstanding, its extension to the two other frames – house/neighbourhood/canal, and Berlin itself, feel unwieldy, and occasionally forced.

Ultimately, the success of a “city-book” of this kind – I feel – turns upon how it makes you feel when you walk upon the streets of the city itself. I spent two days wandering up, down, and around the Landwehr Canal while reading Undercurrents. It was a deeply immersive experience: whether in the field around Gleisdeieck station (beautifully described by Bell as a place whose “success lies in its suggestion of activities but non-proscriptive layout” (p. 283), by the canal (“No sunrise over the mountains or sunset at the lake can outshine the sweet dawns and dusks over the canal’s spring and autumn foliage”, (p. 38) Bell quotes), or by the ruins of the Anhalterbahnof, it made Berlin past and Berlin present come alive in different ways (I felt like I could almost see Rosa Luxemburg through the glazed windows of the former hotel), an experience both heightened and deepened by Bell’s three frames, and her evocative language. Undercurrents shows you that for a city like Berlin, the ocean of stories never really dries up!

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“Nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature”: They Called You Dambudzo, by Flora Veit-Wild

I first read (and reviewed) Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger a few years ago, and fell in love with this strange, indefinable, and incandescent piece of work. His observations on language – and the use of English by outsiders (master’s tools/master’s house) to serve their purpose – were acute and brilliant, and there was something iconoclastic about the way he took on legendary figures such as Ngugi in his claim that “if you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Over the years, in my foray into literature from the African continent, Marechera’s name cropped up repeatedly, a long shadow (even though the man himself died young – in the 1980s – of AIDS). So when I heard about the existence of “They Called You Dambudzo”, a memoir by Flora Veit-Wild, I picked it up immediately, and ended up reading it in an extended twenty-four hour sitting. It reminded me of some of the other great literary biographies and memoirs in the field: Obi Nwakanma’s “Thirsting for Sunlight” (about Christopher Okigbo, who also died young), and Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Flora Veit-Wild is a German professor of African literature, the editor and executor of Marechera’s “literary estate” (so to say), and also – as it turns out – was romantically involved with Marechera while living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. This gives the memoir a particularly unique flavour: Flora Veit-Wild plays the roles of biographer, critic, and lover – all at once – while also negotiating the whole range of issues that come with being a White person writing about a Black writer. For the most part, she walks the line very well.

In the first part of the memoir, we get a snapshot of Veit-Wild’s childhood and youth in post-war West Germany, her revolutionary activities during the 1968 student uprisings, the black-listing of her and her husband from academic jobs because of their association with militant student radicalism, and their final departure to a newly-independent Zimbabwe to – in a sense – rebuild their lives. This part of the memoir may not be all that interesting to those focused on Marechera, but I found it a fascinating window into what it meant to be a left-wing radical student in post-war Europe, and the price that was paid by those who were genuinely committed to the political cause (or, a range of causes – from being anti-Vietnam war to campaigning for the Zimbabwean freedom struggle).

Flora Veit-Wild

The first part of the memoir also informs the rest of it: Veit-Wild’s intense engagement with – and ultimately estrangement from – revolutionary politics creates an “elective affinity” between her and Marechera, who was one of those few Zimbabwean writers who didn’t buy into the nationalist project upon Zimbabwe’s independence, and stood outside it as a critic – a position that triggered his own estrangement and alienation from the post-colonial Zimbabwean literary scene.

Veit-Wild’s account of her romance with Marechera is the most intriguing part of this memoir. Marechera as an individual does not come out of it particularly well – indeed, his behaviour towards both Veit-Wild and Veit-Wild’s husband, Victor – both of whom allow him to stay at their home for an extended period – is full of emotional blackmail and verbal violence, which at times makes for difficult reading. This seems to be a courant with Marechera’s personality in general, and his behaviour towards the world at large – simply distilled and amplified in the context of his intense personal relationship with Veit-Wild and Victor. However, the really interesting part is not that; it is that this period coincides with Marechera’s most fruitful literary output, some of which is inspired by his equation with Veit-Wild. Veit-Wild herself switches between the roles of lover and critic – for example, at the height of their romance, he sits down with her for an extended interview about his literary “philosophy” and style, with both of them seemingly able to seamlessly transition into this more arms-length, “professional” relationship. What is equally interesting is that through Veit-Wild’s eyes, we get an entirely fresh perspective into some of Marechera’s most famous poetry, which was written for her – or at least, written with her in mind. I don’t think I know of any other memoir with this unique positioning – where the memoirist is the subject’s literary critic and lover, at the same time!

The final part of the memoir follows Marechera’s death of AIDS (it turns out that he probably passed on HIV to both Veit-Wild and Victor), Veit-Wild’s return to Germany and her taking up a Humboldt University professorship, her guardianship of Marechera’s literary through editing and publishing work left unfinished or unpublished upon his death, and her own struggle with clinical depression. As a story of a complete life – or rather, three complete lives, if you count Marechera and Victor – this is an account that is filled with generosity, warmth, and humanity.

Perhaps the only issue where the memoir stumbles a bit is Veit-Wild’s engagement with the question of race. As I write at the beginning, Marechera is Black; Veit-Wild is White. There are fraught issues here that cannot be brushed aside. Veit-Wild seems to move between being almost *too* self-aware about this, to not being self-aware *enough*. At particularly difficult moments, she appears to dismiss the issues too quickly; and at other – seemingly more innocuous times – agonise at great length about the racial equation between them. This is understandable, but it does add a few jarring notes to an otherwise beautiful memoir.

But perhaps that is the point. After all, as Marechera wrote, “nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature.”

See also: “On Dambudzo Marechera: The Life and Times of an African Writer“, by Helon Habila; Me, Dambudzo: A Personal Essay“, by Flora Veit-Wild.

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Filed under African Writing, Zimbabwe

2021 in Books

It is the end of 2021. Here, as always, is a brief summary of the books I read this year, organised (inadequately) by geography and genre, and even more inadequately, by a rough rating system.

A. Continent: Africa

  1. S.O. Kenani, For Honour and Other Stories (****): A set of compelling, dark – and sometimes – brutal short stories set in Malawi. This was my first introduction to Malawian fiction. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Ayesha Haruna Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (*****): One of my favourite reads of the year: this novel of colonialism and resistance from Ghana has one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve ever come across. It also has some of the most beautiful lines I read this year. Full review on blog.
  3. Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song (*****): A gorgeous novel set around the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita, and one man’s hunt for its roots. Review on blog.
  4. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea (*****): Very different from Dust – this one moves between the Kenyan island of Pate, China, and Turkey, and is a coming-of-age story; but like Dust, so atmospheric, and filled with lines to die for. Review on blog.
  5. Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda (****): A generational novel, moving between the building of the railroad that created the colony of Kenya, and the fraught moment of Kenyan independence – and about how the choices made by one generation echo down to the next and the next. Has one of the most moving passages on migration and exile that I’ve ever read. Full review on blog.

B. Continent: Asia

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed (****): The sequel to The Sympathizer – with the action now moving to France – manages to somehow be even more darkly funny, even more visceral, and even grimmer than the original. Longer review on Goodreads.

C. Continent: South America

  1. Ariel Dorfman, Darwin’s Ghosts (*****): A brilliantly unique novel about colonialism, told from the perspective of photographs (yes!). If you’re expecting something along the lines of Heading North, Looking South or Death and the Maiden – well, prepare to be surprised. This is more Laurent Binet meets all the Latin American magical realists. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Machado de Assis, 26 Short Stories (***): Epitaph of a Small Winner was a brilliant novel, but I found this story collection a little … uneven.

D. Continent: Europe

  1. Laurent Binet, Civilisations (****): A fascinating alt-history novel about Columbus failing in his voyage and, instead, the Incas and the Aztecs “conquering” Europe, with everything reversed. Really, really good. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Laurent Binet, HHhH (*****): A fictionalised account of the real-life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s right-hand man, by two Czech partisans in Prague. Binet tells this brilliantly: even though you know what happened, this one has you on the edge of your seat till the last page. Also, such a deeply moving account of courage in the face of impossible odds.
  3. Danilo Kis, The Attic (***): I loved A Tomb For Boris Davidovich, but The Attic felt very, very inaccessible (pun not intended!) – a glossary at the end hinted that there were a whole bunch of inter-textual references (especially to Serbian history and culture) that I was missing, so I think this is more of a me thing than the book thing.
  4. Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories (***): Kadare is one of my favourite novelists, but this is not one of my favourite collections: a little too violent and a little too on-the-nose at times. Longer review on Goodreads.
  5. Dubravka Ugresic, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (***): I loved The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, but I have to say, this contemporary retelling of the Baba Yaga legend went over my head a bit.
  6. Simon Sebag Montefiore, One Night in Winter (*****): An absolute page-turner of a historical novel, set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the machinations that follow when a children’s prank goes horribly wrong. This was *spine-chilling* at various points, and the ending was strangely moving.
  7. Leonardo Sciascia, The Knight and Death and One Way Or Another (***): Yet another one of those cases – there were a lot this year – where I bought an author’s second book because I loved the first one (in this case, Equal Danger), but the second one didn’t quite land in the same way. I suspect that it’s because there is a *lot* of thick context at work in this set of novella and short stories, regarding mid-20th century Italian history, politics, and culture, and without any signposting, it gets a little hard for a non-Italian to find their bearings. I could *tell* that a lot of references – especially in One Way Or Another – were passing clean over my head.
  8. Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (****): I actually liked this a lot. In an uncomplicated way.
  9. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (*****): Re-reading this masterpiece is an annual tradition. I never fail to tear up at the end.
  10. Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease To Understand The World (****): All kinds of pyrotechnics in this one – from the history of cobalt blue (including an eerie Nazi history) to Grothendiek to Schrodinger to Heisenberg – it’s as if Michael Frayn was writing this on drugs!

E. Region: Middle-East

  1. Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost (****): The legendary Lebanese writer’s latest offering has one of the most intriguing premises I’ve ever come across: a person writes a letter, and leaves it somewhere unsent; another person finds it, which prompts them to write their own letter, which they leave somewhere unsent; and so on, for six people; part two is the same stories, told from the perspectives of those who were meant to receive the letters, but never do; and part three is from the p.o.v. of the postman. This book didn’t *always* come together, but it’s worth a read just for the premise. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Sonallah Ibrahim, Warda (*****): One of my utter favourites of the year. Warda straddles two historical epochs – the contemporary middle-east and the Dhoofar Revolution in Oman of the 1960s and 70s (a revolution that has been almost erased from history); and the story revolves around eponymous Warda, a revolutionary who disappeared during the Dhoofar struggle, but whose shadow continues to haunt the present. This was utterly moving.

F. Science Fiction

  1. S.B. Divya, Machinehood (****): A compelling, near-future science fiction novel about an almost totally gig-ified economy, and a mysterious organisation advocating for the rights of machines. Longer review at Strange Horizons.
  2. Adam Roberts, Purgatory Mount (****): Extremely cerebral and extremely sharply-written, as we expect from Roberts.
  3. Aliya Whitely, Skyward Inn (*****): I don’t quite know how to describe this. In a good way.
  4. Octavia Cade, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief (*****): A beautiful, haunting novella about climate change, the terrain of physical – and other kinds – of loss, and the nameless melancholy (or the “twilight” of the soul that Amjad Nasser wrote about) that comes with losing something without quite knowing what it is that you’ve lost. As an added bonus, you’ll learn a lot about jellyfish.
  5. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shards Of Earth (****): Operatic science fiction from one of the modern greats, about the relationship between humanity and a super-intelligent – and seemingly super-violent – race of “Architects”.
  6. Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (*****): A classic, but one that has aged extremely well. This series of vignettes is set in worlds like ours, with one crucial difference: time works in a different way in each. One of the stand-out reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  7. Arkady Strugatsky, One Billion Years To The End of the World (*****): Utterly insane.
  8. Iain M Banks, Surface Detail (****): I had a bit of a return-to-the-Culture phase in the middle of this year, starting with Surface Detail. This one has arguably one of the most fascinating premises in the series – that with the uploading of consciousnesses, civilisations start to invent literal “hells” – which then enter into a virtual “war” with the no-hells side, with the future of the afterlife at stake. Longer review on Goodreads.
  9. Iain M Banks, Excession (*****): This is, by some stretch, my favourite Culture novel (so far). When Banks keeps the Hollywood set-piece space battles to a minimum, and focuses instead on the big ideas and AIs chuntering with one another, he can be so uniquely compelling. This one really put the “opera” in space opera.
  10. Iain M Banks, Look To Windward (****): The most haunting of the Culture novels. The premise – where a Mind (the Culture AIs) lets a star be destroyed – and billions of lives lost – for the greater good, and then has to watch the light from the supernova reach its home-world eight hundred years later – is near-cosmic in its melancholy. Slightly conflicted about the ending, which did not seem to be entirely earned.
  11. Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed (*****): A re-read of the old classic after a gap of fifteen years, and my gosh, what an experience it was to come back to this one as an adult! Full review on blog.
  12. Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (****): A post-anthropocene novella: what happens if humanity does survive the climate catastrophe – and learns all the right lessons from it? Full review on Strange Horizons.
  13. Una McCormack, The Autobiography of Mr. Spock (*****): An “autobiography” of my favourite Star Trek character, by my favourite Star Trek author – what’s not to love? Spock’s voice comes through beautifully in this.
  14. Essa Hansen, Azura Ghost (*****): The sequel to the wonderful Nophek Gloss, due in March 2022 (I read an ARC). Hansen juggles multiple universes as if they were fireballs, without ever dropping a single one. Like the best of science fiction, Azura Ghost asks the questions that we often fear to ask ourselves: about the extent of our responsibility in this world, what it means to choose, the limits of empathy, and the inevitability of loss; and like the best of science fiction, it asks them both at the scale of the cosmos, and at the level of a single human heart. The novel’s ambition is upheld by soaring prose, which does full justice to the scope of Hansen’s imagination. 
  15. Alastair Reynolds, The Prefect (****): My first Reynolds, and it was excellent. The moral stakes were reminiscent of some of the best moments in Iain M Banks (I was reminded of Look To Windward on more than one occasion), and The Prefect combines that with a whodunnit/detective story in the mould of After Atlas. The most fascinating part of the book is the political structure of the Glitter Band (direct democracy via instant polling on ten thousand “habitats”), and my only complaint is that I *really* wish that the book explored the political structure of these ambiguous utopias a little bit more.

G. Fantasy

  1. Yaroslav Barsukov, Tower of Mud and Straw (****): A bleak and atmospheric novella, part-Gothic part-Tower of Babel retelling; recommended. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Ahmed Naji, Using Life (***): An absolutely wild – if sometimes borderline chaotic – fantasy novel set in near-future Egypt. I’d recommend this for the sheer originality – and for the fact that the author spent two years in an Egyptian jail for “obscenity” (fantasy writers don’t often get imprisoned!).
  3. Nghi Vo, Empress of Salt and Fortune (****): An enjoyable novella about tyranny, revolution, and its consequences.
  4. E.J. Beaton, The Councillor (****): A lush and vivid court-fantasy set in what appears to be an alt-medieval Italy, with a sprinkling of magic and some battle scenes to die for (not literally). Stacks up favourably against writers such as Guy Gavriel Kay.
  5. Aliette de Bodard, Fireheart Tiger (****): Another really good novella that deals with unequal power relations in the political and the personal domains, and what happens when the two clash.
  6. Fabio Fernando, Love: An Archaeology (****): A collection of richly-imagined – and very intelligent – fantasy and horror stories, set in and around (but not exclusive to) Brazil.
  7. Suyi Davies Okungbawa, Son Of The Storm (****): An enjoyable and original West-African-inspired fantasy story. Full review at Strange Horizons.
  8. Katharine Addison, Witness for the Dead (****): A finely-crafted and very engaging novel; it looked nailed-on to be a five-star all the way through until the last thirty pages, when a somewhat rushed ending left me with the slightest hint of dissatisfaction. I will note that I have not read the other novel set in this universe – The Goblin Emperor – and that might have taken away from my enjoyment a bit.

H. Hindi Literature

  1. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Rashmirathi (*****): Even on an n-th re-read, this epic poem about the life of Karna never fails to move.

I. Indian Literature (in English)

  1. Krupa Ge, What We Know About Her (****): Published this year, a deeply thought-provoking novel about music, history, constrained lives, and the pull of the past upon the present.

J. History

  1. Alice Baumgartner, South To Freedom (*****): A meticulously researched and movingly written account of the American slaves’ attempts to escape to freedom south of the border, to Mexico. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Touissant Louverture (****): A granular – if at times slightly dense – biography of Touissant, and an excellent companion to Black Jacobins. Longer review on Goodreads.
  3. H.A. Hellyer, A Revolution Undone (***): An interesting – if at times, somewhat ambiguous – account of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and its aftermath. Longer review on Goodreads.
  4. Mark Goodale, A Revolution in Fragments: Traversing Scales of Justice, Ideology, and Practice in Bolivia (*****): A brilliant study of the social movements that led to the framing of the plurinational Bolivian Constitution of 2009, and the struggles around the fulfilment of its promises. Even more poignant after the coup of 2019 and the return of MAS. One of the stand-out reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  5. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (*****): An authoritative history of the Mau-Mau rebellion. Meticulously researched, and told with a detachment that makes the story all the more chilling. And yes, the British do not come out of it well.
  6. Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963 – 2011 (*****): Thorough, comprehensive, and detailed.
  7. Michaela Wrong, It’s Our Turn to Eat (*****): Occasionally disjointed, but overall, a tautly-written book that tells a compelling story about political corruption in contemporary Kenya.

K. Political Economy

  1. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (*****): One of those perspective-altering books. Goodale traces the rise of coal, and its dominance as a function of the attempts of the early capitalists’ to break the power of labour – and the consequences that still reverberate to this day. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries (*****): A brilliant account of the doomed Project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende and Stafford Beer’s famous attempt to merge democratic management of the economy with cybernetics. This is a book about what-could-have-been – and maybe, after the recent Chilean elections, of what-still-could-be! One of the reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  3. Leslie Kern, Feminist City: A Field Guide (****): As the name suggests. An interesting – if at times too American and Euro-centric – book.
  4. Pablo Sendra & Richard Bennett, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City (*****): A brilliant set of essays on political geography and urban spaces.
  5. Thea Riofrancos, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (*****): In many ways, this excellent book does for Ecuador what Mark Goodale’s book does for Bolivia: position the recent history of Ecuador – including the framing of its progressive Constitution – within the global debate on extractivism and resource exploitation. Poignant and moving at times, and immensely frustrating (the story, not the writing) at others. Essential. Longer review on Goodreads.
  6. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (*****): A controversial – yet excellent and lucidly written – history of capitalism.
  7. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (*****): I know the historical account in this book has been criticised, but I found it to be a really excellent read that linked the origins of capitalism in Western Europe with the history of the witch-hunt, and the sexual division of labour. Longer review on Goodreads.
  8. Manu Saadia, Trekonomics (****): A really entertaining political-economy account of what makes the Star Trek universe work, and how post-scarcity isn’t simply a get-out-of-jail-free card.

L. The Natural World

  1. Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (*****): This is a stunning book about fungi, their unique ways of being, and their importance to the ecosystem. From lichens that can survive sub-zero temperatures to truffles hunted in the wild, from the blurring of boundaries between individual and group identity to the “wood wide web”, this is a beautifully written piece of work, and has spared what I think will be a lifelong interest in fungi.
  2. Godfrey Smith-Peter, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (****): This one did for me with respect to octopi what Sheldrake’s book did with respect to fungi: a the birth of a lifelong fascination. Longer review on Goodreads.

M. Essays

  1. Josef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (*****): A book whose title does a better job of describing it than any summary can.
  2. Alaa abd-el Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (*****): Alaa’s prison essays – written between 2011 – 2021, chronicling the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath – are, quite simply, some of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in recent times. This would be the one book from 2021 that I would ask everyone to read. Full review at The Wire.

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Re-reading The Dispossessed

As with many other people, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was both a gateway into science fiction for me as a child, as well as a very early political textbook. The bleak egalitarianism of Anarres, the striking contrasts with Urras, the scenes of the general strike, and the character of Shevek himself – all these stayed with me for many years, even as the details grew hazy in memory. Earlier this year, I returned to the book, after the passage of a decade and a half. It was a fascinating experience to come back to such a formative piece of work as an adult, and now with a long-standing interest in philosophical anarchism. Of course, The Dispossessed is canon; it’s been analysed extensively over the last fifty years. I don’t intend to add more words to that corpus, so this post is essentially a set of reflections upon re-reading the book.

For me, the most striking part of The Dispossessed is the level of detail with which Le Guin constructs the anarchist society upon Anarres, much of which – I think – has held up particularly well over the decades. At various points in the book – whether as vehicles for advancing the plot, or just as passing mentions in conversations or through the narrative voice – the spheres of production, reproduction, and distribution are all touched upon: from urban infrastructure to art, from supply chains to the naming of children – it’s all there. Much of the discussion, indeed, speaks to radical political texts and arguments that (at least in some cases) were contemporaneous with – or written after – The Dispossessed.

For example, in one of the first descriptions of the urban centre of Abennay, we are told that: “Abennay was poisonless: a bare city, bright, the colours light and hard, the air pure. It was quiet. You could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt. Nothing was hidden.” (p. 84) This reminded me powerfully of Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett’s book, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. Sendra and Sennett speak of “publicising infrastructure” as an element of radical urban design, or to “unblackbox infrastructure through architectural design.” (Sendra & Sennett, p. 65) The basic idea is to mitigate differences in power that arise out of urban infrastructure being kept out of sight – and opaque – to those who actually live in the city, and to provide the collective with a measure of control over where the resources are coming from and how they are used. Le Guin does not, of course, get into the technicalities of the urban architecture of Abennay, but the novelist’s task is suggestion, and in that sense, the words “you could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt … nothing was hidden” indicate how the anarchist foundations of Anarres also constitute the – literal – foundation of its cities. While Verso has published Designing Disorder in 2020, the original – solely authored by Sennett – was published in 1970 – four years before The Dispossessed. I can’t but help wondering if Le Guin was inspired in some way by the Sennett’s radical infrastructural proposals.

The art of Anarres is equally interesting. Shevek’s intense reaction upon attending his first concerts in Abennay sets in motion a chain of thought that leads us to this observation: “Thus, architecture had developed, early and freely, a consistent style, pure and plain, subtle in proportion. Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and story-telling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theatre stood wholly alone, and only the theatre was ever called “the Art” – a thing complete in itself.” (p. 131) This reminded me immediately of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s book, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology – also, coincidentally, published in 1970! While that book is primarily about science, its core point – that the division (and hierarchy) between “intellectual” and “manual” labour, where the former is sought to be abstracted from social relations – is a construction of capitalism, applies equally to the distinction between artistic and manual labour. Sohn-Rethel’s proposal for a world in which intellectual labour is “re-embedded” – so to say – within the social relations of production appears to have been accomplished with respect to art on Anarres, as the quoted passage shows (although there is some chafing about it). Once again, I wonder if these ideas – then in wide circulation among leftists and radicals – formed part of the base upon which Le Guin built Anarres.

A third feature of Anarres is that de-growth is very evidently a part of material life – and not just something determined by the harshness of the terrain. The origins of the term “de-growth” are, of course, much more recent (in SF, the idea has been most recently articulated in Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built). We are told this early on when the complex organicism of Anarres is described, as well as its apparent liberation from the commodity form and the capitalist imperative of ceaseless growth. There is, therefore, a strong political economy thread running through The Dispossessed, and I thought it made a particularly vivid re-appearance later on, after the protest marches on Urras: “.. the revolutionists in Nio, they come from the same tradition. They weren’t just striking for better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists, they are anarchists; they were striking against Power” (282) Now, there is of course an open question about whether “power” has been abolished on Anarres (and evidently, insofar as public opinion constitutes a power structure, The Dispossessed is quite clear that it has not), but Le Guin’s clarity here about the distinction between reforms within capitalism (better wages etc) that have historically been the end-goal of mainstream trade unionism on the one hand, and the quest to transform social relations altogether, which has been part of the tradition of more radical unionism, is fascinating (needless to say, socialists would disagree with the accusation that their own manifestos are limited to better wages and having the draft abolished).

The Dispossessed also deals with questions around the institutionalisation – and putrefaction – of revolution. Shevek-the-rebel is always in an ambiguous position because of who – or what – he is rebelling against. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he thinks to himself that “he could not rebel against his society because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 147). I had a somewhat funny mental association while reading this: I found myself thinking of the Mexican political party, PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional – whose name literally translates to “the Institutional Revolutionary Party”. But somehow, it fits perfectly – Anarres has become an institutional revolution which formally denies to its citizens the moral authority to revolt, because how do you rebel against the Revolution, how do you question power when your interlocutor has disavowed power itself? Indeed, I think that The Dispossessed’s sub-title – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – has to do not so much with the harshness of life on Anarres, as it has to do with the tension between the idea of freedom upon which Anarres is built, and the freedom to rebel that it nonetheless denies to is citizens.

My final point is a mildly critical one: there is one respect in which I think that The Dispossessed is not particularly convincing, and that is in its treatment of gender relations. I mean, in particular, the gender relations on Urras: Urras is an advanced capitalist society – I’d put them at around 2050/2100 in earth equivalent – but the gender relations there are borderline feudal, and feel almost caricatured at times. We have known, of course, that one of the features of the 20th century was that discrimination – whether gender-based, racial, or otherwise – moved from being formal and direct to being structural, institutional, and indirect. Urras, I think, would have been a far more convincing foil to Anarres had gender relations been treated with the same subtlety that the rest of the world-building was.

But overall, I think it’s striking how much of The Dispossessed continues to hold up, how well it has aged, and how much of it continues to feel relevant – a true sign of a classic. Its highlight-reel of lines is truly memorable: “Men always have theories and things always have to fit them” (179); “… separation is educational alright, but your presence is all the education I want” (210); “We make justice here or nowhere” (243); “If you evade suffering, you also evade the chance of joy” (275); and of course, the devastating “Weigh it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” he said, turning to her, “and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.” (289)

I can think of no other writer whose finest line also doubles up as a comprehensive critique of methodological utilitarianism!


Filed under Speculative Fiction

Reading Kenya

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea: The Dragonfly Sea is the story of Ayaana, who grows up with her mother, Munira, and a father that she adopts – Muhidin – on the island of Pate, off the Kenyan coast. Her life changes when – on the basis of DNA tests – it is found that she is one of the distant descendants of a Chinese naval expedition that was wrecked off the coast of Pate seven hundred years ago. As part of their cultural diplomacy, the Chinese declare her a cultural ambassador – someone who can “walk the space between the past and the present, so that the future could be shared” (p. 154), and finance her education in China. But meanwhile, things are not well on Pate, when Muhidin’s recently-returned son – and now married to Munira – is renditioned as a suspected terrorist, and their fragile family is torn apart. While Ayaana’s time in China – and a brief, perilous sojourn in Turkey – changes her, she too will return to a very changed Pate Island.

Readers familiar with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s previous novel, Dust, will quickly recognise the familiar qualities of her writing: atmospheric writing (“Each port had a distinctive smell, as if the sea distilled the climate, hopes, and experiences of each place into a unique essence. Kilindini. Top note, earth, fire, moon flowers, and blood; middle note, salt, putrefying seaweed, and rust; bottom note, wood, twilight’s sun warmth, sweat (182 – 3)); a deep sense of place (“Outside, East African botanical exiles – the flame trees of Xiamen had exploded into red flower, and in the late light these looked like giant lanterns (357)); prose that engages all the senses (“Imagine the world as a salt road, and yourselves as slugs crossing it…” (120)); and sentences crafted like jewels (“Cartography not of possession, but of, how odd, belonging…” (478)). At the same time, The Dragonfly Sea paints upon a much larger canvas than the contained, Kenyan narrative-scape of Dust: from Pate Island to Mozambique to China to Turkey and back again – and all though, with the sea being its own character – The Dragonfly Sea communicates a sense of immensity, radiating outwards from the sometime-city-now-almost-ghost-town of Pate: “My town lives inside the ghost of a city that was the centre of the world.” (242)

At the centre of the story is Ayaana, a protagonist to whom you lose your heart to immediately; in many ways, as she navigated the world, Ayaana reminded me of Kirabo in Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman and Wurche in Ayesha Haruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Owuor gives us an equally memorable supporting cast around her, from Munira and Muhidin to the emotionally lacerated Chinese ship-captain Lai Jin, and of course, the sea itself: most of Ayaana’s character itself is revealed not through interiority, but through engagement with these characters as they enter, cross, recross, and – sometimes – exit the stage of her life; by the end, it is more than sufficient to bear the narrative burden that Owuor places upon it, and the ending is a triumph.

Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda: Peter Kiman’s Dance of the Jakaranda is a generational story, along the lines of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu or Namwalli Serpell’s The Old Drift. It moves between 1902 and 1962 Kenya: at the time when the great railway line that formed the heart of the British colony was being constructed (with the help of Indian labour), and the years leading up to Kenyan independence. At the centre of the story is Jakaranda Hotel at Nakuru, built by Ian McDonald (“the Master”), former Commissioner of the Protectorate, for a wife who would never live there; at the time of Independence, we find Rajan Salim – a musician, and – as it turns out – the grandson of Babu, one of the initial Indian emigrants brought to build the railway, and McDonald’s bete noire – playing to packed crowds at the Jakaranda Hotel; soon, however, the chaos around Independence will engulf Nakuru and Rajan as well, and lead to the opening up of a particularly dark past involving McDonald, Babu, and the assassinated preacher Turnbull.

Dance of the Jakaranda moved adroitly between timelines, carefully revealing how events of the past ripple into the future (in that sense, apart from the books I mentioned above, it reminded me even more of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, which moved between Stalin’s purge of the Uzbek intellectuals in the 1930s, and social and cultural upheaval in the Central Asian Khanates a century before. The two stories are similar in how they skilfully depict the faint – yet unmistakable – ways in which events set in motion echo in unexpected ways through the generations. Dance of the Jakaranda is also, of course, a novel about colonialism: that is inevitable given the times that it is set in. On this Kimani is, as one would expect, unsparing: one of the things I learned from it was how the British intentionally introduced infectious diseases to wipe out the animal stock of of the Masai herdsmen, and reduce them to wage labour, so that they could be conscripted into work on the railway line.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this book is its choice of protagonists: Babu and Rajan are Indians in Kenya (an immigrant, and then a third-generation Kenyan-Indian). Writing involving Indians in Kenya – given our intertwined histories – is, of course, not new (think of Joginder Paul’s Land Lust), but this is perhaps the first novel I’ve read by a Kenyan where the story of colonialism and independence is seen through Indian eyes. And this is wonderfully done: Kimani writes with great empathy, sensitivity, and humaneness about what has often been a fraught history. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in the book captures that history in a single, beautiful image:

But what has truly put Nakuru on the world map is the wilflife sanctuary around the Jakaranda, and the annual festival held every December to coincide with the migration of the flamingos, the alien birds that inhabit the lake that gave the township its name. The birds’ first recorded exodus out of town coincided with the expulsion of the Indians, which many believe was the birds’ expression of solidarity with the community. (347)

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song: Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Unbury Our Dead With Song is a love letter to music, to all that it can do – and all that we long for it to do. At the heart of the story is the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita. Told from the eyes of the Kenyan tabloid journalist, John Thandi Manfredi, the story opens at an underground Nairobi bar where a competition is held to determine the best tizita singer of the world. Haunted by what he hears at the bar, John persuades his editor to let him travel to Ethiopia to interview these practitioners of the tizita, and get to the root of what makes this music what it is.

While reading Unbury Our Dead With Song, I was reminded repeatedly of an image from Virgil’s Aeneid: that of a shoreline that recedes every time you sail towards it. This story takes us to the limits of words and of language; then, at the place where words end, to sounds and to music – and then to the ending point of music itself, with something still left over, a gap that still remains. As John describes a tizita performance: “… a place where the music is as true as speech, as true as a conversation with all its starts and hiccups and silences as one searches for meaning, or the right words” (155). Tizita, too, is a searching-without-finding, a suggestion of something but without grasping it. Indeed, on more than one occasion, John – and his interlocutors – can only make sense of it through the language of loss:

“I have many answers, but here is one,” she said as I laughed. “Tizita is of a love lost a long time ago – before you are born. Let me put it this way, “Malaika” is the song the original Tizita singer sang when the wounds of losing love, country, parent, sibling – of losing life while still alive – were still fresh. All those losses over years become something you pass on from generation to generation – the moss of all those broken hearts and loss gathered in song. “Malaika” is the fresh wound; the Tizita is the scar. “Malaika” has a face; the Tizita is faceless, or rather, it has so many faces that it is faceless. (95)


“I told you before. Containment. The Tizita – it is private, a private love or sorrow that joins the public ocean of tears. We mourn and celebrate together and privately at the same time. A good Tizita walks that line – if you show off, you undo that balance. The people feel what they have lost, no need to slap them in the face with it. Besides, what can you tell an erupting volcano of the hotness of the lava?” (p. 133)


“Think about the first death – the Tizita, to me, for me, is that sound of the first death, the recognition and the surprise and the realization; that first consciousness that realized it was going to be no more – and it wanted to leave a message in a bottle that becomes me and you … all I can say is, you can walk for a very long time and get to where you are going, but all along, little bits of yourself are left along the way, and you get to where you are going, and there is no going back without stepping on yourself, and there is no going forward without eventually tearing your entrails out of your body.” (p. 184)

One of the important ideas that contribute to this characterisation of titiza is that of containment. “The explosion is in the containment” (96), John is told. There is a holding back, a bordering, a going-there-but-not-quite; and this is because the gap between expression and feeling will remain no matter what, even when you substitute language with music. Thus, beauty lies not in futile attempts to express feeling, but in knowing when to stop and how far to go. In that sense, much of the story of Unbury Our Dead With Song reminded me of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, which exemplifies the idea of containment so well. In fact, there is one line from Herbert’s poem, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, which – I think – tells us what Unbury Our Dead With Song is fundamentally about: “he would like to remain faithful/ to uncertain clarity.” The tension within the phrase “uncertain clarity” characterises Ngugi’s novel, and it is in that tension that we find its most beautiful lines and moments.

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“A list of quiet things”: The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga is the story of two women: Aminah, who grows up in the village of Botu, part of a little community that lives under the fear of slaver raids; and Wurche, the daughter of an ambitious local noble who has designs on the throne of Salaga. When Aminah’s village is destroyed by raiders, she is forced away from her home and her society, and into a long journey that will take her to Salaga, city of a hundred wells. There, her life will intersect with Wurche, who is seeking for a way out of a loveless marriage, forced upon her for political reasons. But soon, something bigger than itinerant slave raids and the internal politics of Salaga will come to shape the women’s lives: the looming inevitability of colonialism.

The story of the Hundred Wells of Salaga – set in (what is now) Ghana, on the eve of colonial conquest – might feel a bit like a cross between Maryse Conde’s Segu (Wurche’s storyline) and Leonora Minamao’s Season of the Shadow (Aminah’s storyline). Indeed, the book does belong in a long traditions of novels set in societies on the verge of being torn apart by colonialism. But what makes The Hundred Wells of Salaga unique is its characters: the people who walk across the novel’s stage are achingly, painfully human, both at their finest, and at their worst. To take just one example: looking for release from a brutal marriage with the Dagbon prince Adnan, Wurche finds it with a man called Moro. This would ideally make Moro a positive, sympathetic character – and from Wurche’s perspective (at least in the beginning), he is; only, there’s one problem: Moro’s a slave trader (albeit one who takes no pleasure in the job). Wurche’s act of rebellion – which would otherwise give the reader a sense of (perhaps unearned) catharsis – is thus laced with the constant, background awareness of Moro’s active participation in an unimaginably brutal enterprise.

At the heart of the novel is undoubtedly Wurche herself, who has got to be one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve come across in recent times. Layered, complex, ambiguous, flawed; sometimes actor and sometimes acted upon; sometimes rebelling against oppression and sometimes being an oppressor; limited – like all of us – and struggling against those limits, sometimes with success but often unsuccessfully (again, like all of us), Wurche elevates this novel to an incandescent pitch. We feel deeply invested in her fate, even as her actions sometimes alienate and sometimes revolt.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, photo via Wikipedia

Probably the novel’s only unambiguously good character, Aminah is an excellent foil to Wurche. Her seeming passivity may give an initial impression of a character that is non-too-clearly fleshed out – but this would be a mistake. Lacking Wurche’s privileges, Aminah cannot move through the world like an actor; her survival – and eventual freedom – depends on her flattening her personality, and becoming as unremarkable as it is possible to be. But even so, we see enough – a glimpse and a flash – to know that underneath the facade is a personality every bit as full as that of Wurche’s.

Around the two women, there is a galaxy of memorable characters who leave an impression, no matter how short, or how walk-on, their roles are: the fathers, who allow their daughters freedom – until it becomes politic to deny it; the brother who would rather farm than fight; the German soldier who is aware of his country’s crimes, but is complicit nonetheless because the alternative is too difficult to contemplate; Moro, who is similarly aware of the slave trade’s awfulness, but complicit for the same reasons; we get sympathetic – yet unsparing – portraits of each of these characters. Nothing is excused, and nothing is justified – but there is an understanding of what they do what they do, a messy entanglement of institutional pressure and personal agency that leads human beings into deeper and deeper moral quicksand.

I finished the novel in two sitting – it would have been one, had life not intervened. From the first page, the book pulls you in, leaving you painfully, terrifyingly drawn into the fates of the characters, seeing the world through their eyes. And if that were not enough, it has one of the most devastating concluding lines that I’ve ever read.

A magnificent achievement.

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2020 In Books

This year saw a significant shift in my reading, triggered by the fact that I published my debut science fiction novel, The Wall, and spent most of the year working on its sequel. Being a genre writer shapes your reading preferences in a very specific way: you begin to actively look out for, and read, novels that share the stylistic or narrative commitments of your own, and you also find yourself reading more broadly in the genre, to gain a sense of what it looks like. So, in 2020, a large part of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and I feel it ended up becoming a little too skewed. That’s something I’ll try to correct in 2021. Because of writing commitments, I also read less than in previous years, and hardly blogged all year. With the sequel – and the duology – set to be completed in ten days, that’s another thing to correct in the coming year.

Here, as always, the books I read this year, with the usual flawed rating system. I’ve talked about my SFF reading separately as well, in my Slack newsletter. You can find links to all the books on my Goodreads Page.


  1. Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King (****): A memorable and haunting re-telling of the WW2-era Ethiopian war of independence from colonial Italian rule, from the perspective of its women participants.
  2. Jennifer Makumbi, The First Woman (*****): A beautiful and searing coming-of-age story set in 1970s Uganda, following its protagonist, Kirabo, as she makes her way through childhood, school, and then college, in a changing and often hostile world. One of the stand-out reads of the year.

The Middle East

  1. Isabella Hammad, The Parisian (****): Hammad’s novel takes us to pre-nakba Nablus, and is a very vivid story about Palestine in the 1920s – an era that has been relatively unwritten about.
  2. Ibtisam Azem, The Book of Disappearance (****): Azem’s novel – in which all the Palestinians presently living in Israel and Palestine literally vanish overnight – could also be called speculative fiction, but I’m including it here to avoid front-loading that category even more.
  3. Adel Kamel, The Magnificent Conman of Cairo (***): The title is a good guide to the novel. This is a classic of Egyptian literature. It didn’t always land for me, but there were moments of darkly comic brilliant, and you can see why it was as influential as it was.


  1. Victor Serge, Conquered City (***): I love Victor Serge to bits, but this one – about a Soviet city torn apart very soon after the revolution – just didn’t do it for me. I felt bogged down at various points, and the momentary flashes of brilliance didn’t make up for that.
  2. China Mieville, October (****): Mieville’s fictional reconstruction of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of spectacular – this is thrilling narrative prose, brilliant characterisation, and a deeply moving ending.


  1. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, My Father’s Garden (****): A deeply enjoyable and humorous set of three inter-connected short stories, set in small-town India, with its protagonists coming to terms with the world, and with their own sexuality.


  1. Pyotr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution (*****) : The legendary anarchist’s look back at the French Revolution, a hundred years on, is a ride and a half. His acerbic, drily witty style is an absolute delight to read, and his central thesis – that the revolution’s radicalism was repeatedly betrayed by an ascendant middle class – holds up well.
  2. Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution (****) : I am a long-time fan of Hazan – his political-geography Paris books were my guides when I was in the city – and this is a characteristically excellent account, albeit far too easy on Robespierre.
  3. Kavita Punjabi, Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement (*****): A brilliant feminist oral history – in the mold of Alessandro Portelli – of the forgotten Tebhaga movement, where – at the cusp of independence – farmers in Bengal demanded two-thirds of the produce. Another stand-out of the year.


  1. Nazik al-Mala’ika, Revolt Against the Sun (trans. Emily Drumsta) (*****): I’ve loved Nazik al-Mala’ika ever since I read the poem Love Song for Words, and here, finally, is a collection of her translated poems. Emily Drumsta’s Introduction is a jewel – she contextualises al-Mala’ika’s life, her poetic and political preoccupations, and the larger context of a woman writing poetry in Iraq in the mid-20th century. The Introduction also does to a tee what all great Introductions do: it makes you understand and love the poems even more.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

  1. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago (***): In my early 20s, I probably knew entire dialogues from GGK novels by heart. It’s probably a sign of how much taste can change that his latest – which, in theory, I should have loved, as it took us back to the same setting as the brilliant Tigana – did very little for me. Nothing wrong with the novel – it’s vintage GGK – but I guess I’ve just moved on.
  2. Nancy Kress, Sea Change (***): An interesting cli-fi novel(la), focused on the agribusiness and food security aspect of it; the heavily US-centric nature of it was probably why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I otherwise would.
  3. Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (*****): Yes, I finally read this. What else is there to say?
  4. Fonda Lee, Jade City (****): The first book in the Green Bone saga, centred around the clash between rival clans for control over jade, and its political economy. Jade City has received rave reviews across the board, and it is a very solid work of fantasy – world-building, pacing, characters, action sequences – all of it is delivered with great competence.
  5. Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (*****): I waited far too long to read this book, and when I did, it went straight to the top of my all-time list. I’ve raved about this everywhere, but one final time: epic fantasy focused on the political economy of colonialism and empire, and featuring the best darn slow-burn romance you will ever read.
  6. Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant (*****): The sequel. See above.
  7. Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (****): Book 3 kinda slipped in parts, but the ending was solid enough to get things back on track and set up a spectacular finale.
  8. Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (*****): Another extraordinary novel, the kind that comes along rarely (and I read Baru and Gideon back to back). “Lesbian necromancers in space” is how it’s billed, but of course it is a lot more than that – I think it’s the sheer, unabashed wickedness of the writing that really gets you.
  9. Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth (***): I’ll be absolutely honest and admit that I did not understand what was happening in the sequel.
  10. Samit Basu, Chosen Spirits (****): A best-of-all-possible dystopias with a sliver of hope, set in a near-future Delhi (always a draw!).
  11. Berit Ellingsen, A Tale of Truths (****): A fun fantasy novella that involves the discovery of the heliocentric model of the galaxy!
  12. Ken Liu, The Hidden Girl and other Stories (****): A collection of excellent short stories from Ken Liu that shows why he continues to be one of the most highly-regarded voices of the genre right now.
  13. Yoon Ha Lee, Phoenix Extravagant (****): I am a huge fan of Lee’s Hexarchate SF series. Phoenix Extravagant is an altogether softer novel, and its fantasy, loosely modeled on the Korean/Japanese war. I especially loved how art – and artists – were at the centre of this novel, something you don’t always see in fantasy.
  14. Yoss, Red Dust (****): Yoss is back! The Cuban biochemist punk rocker SFF writer – and an eternal favourite – has another crazy romp through the galaxy, and you can bet that biological absurdities abound in this book whose main character is called… Raymond Chandler.
  15. Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (****): Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space, a compulsive read (finished it in two 3AM sittings), and excellent military SF all around.
  16. Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline (****): A really unique time-travel novel where the central premise involves rescuing women’s right to abortion.
  17. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (****): Dark-ish fantasy set in 1920s Mexico, and involving a lot of god-like stuff. The prose style – a kind of Gothic with a LatAm touch – was especially compelling.
  18. Iain M. Banks (***): The opening novel of the Culture series is probably also my least favourite. Incredibly tedious in parts, brilliant in parts.
  19. Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Analogue/Virtual (****): A set of inter-connected vigenettes set in a dystopic near-future Bangalore divided into its two halves, the virtual and the analogue.
  20. R.B. Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves (****): A delightful little novella with an atmospheric prose style, featuring trans elders and weaving.
  21. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (****): A book that’s polarised opinion. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The middle part was outstanding. The beginning and end were a little… unintelligible.
  22. Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden (*****): Possibly the best genre novel I read all year. The novel is lyrical, haunting, and has an arc that literally spans the universe. Read this.
  23. Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun (****): A solid and enjoyable fantasy novel set in pre-Columbian America.
  24. Essa Hansen, Nophek Gloss (*****): A pretty scintillating hard-SF debut, set in a deliciously imagined multiverse, and featuring a truly memorable protagonist.
  25. Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons (****): The third Culture novel. It starts to get better.
  26. Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Donald, The Dominion Anthology: Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (****): A solid collection. Some familiar names, some new ones, and some of the stories – like Eugen Bacon’s – will stay with you for a long time.
  27. Andres Eschbach, The Hair-Carpet Weavers (****): My last read of 2020. I have many mixed and complicated feelings about this novel, a German SF classic. You’ll hear about them in the newsletter!

Have a happy 2021, filled with books!


Filed under Reading List, Reading Lists

“There are plans you make in life which then hurt when they actually happen”: Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman

“Stories are critical, Kirabo,” she added thoughtfully. “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

In 2017, I read and loved Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, a wonderful piece of historical fiction spanning the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of Uganda. Makumbi’s seamless ability to move between great political events and deeply personal stories, and her ability to contextualise each in terms of the other, made Kintu a uniquely beautiful read. The First Woman is Makumbi’s second novel, and for me, it surpasses even Kintu.

The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, who grows up in her grandparents’ home in the village of Nattetta in the 1970s. She has never known a mother, and her father – Tom – is absent from her childhood, working in Kampala. As a child, Kirabo feels herself splitting up into two selves: her own body, and another self that occasionally leaves her to fly around the village, looking down upon herself and upon others. Searching for a solution, she makes a secret visit to Nsuuta, a blind, old woman whom everyone calls a witch, and who has an old, nameless feud with Kirabo’s grandmother. Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her other self is “the first woman”, who lived at a time before women had been subjugated by men (“the original state”) – and it is this “first woman”, who occasionally continues to make a home in a few bodies, that is now struggling for liberation and expression. Kirabo asks Nsuuta to get rid of her second self – but unknown to her, her clandestine visits will trigger the release of an ancient family conflict that will envelop all its members, and dog Kirabo’s own footsteps as she begins to make her way into the world.

The First Woman is divided into five sections: “The Witch”, “The Bitch”, “Utopia”, “When the Villages Were Young”, and “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other.” “The Witch” section introduces us to Kirabo, and the cast of characters around her: her grandfather Miiro, her grandmother Alikisa (although only Nsuuta calls her that), Nsuuta herself, assorted family members, Kirabo’s childhood crush Sio, and her close friend Giibwa – and of course, Kirabo’s second self as well as her absent mother, both of whom are characters in their own right. “The Bitch” takes up the story with Kirabo’s father, Tom, taking her to Kampala to live with him, the hostile reception that Kirabo is accorded by Tom’s second wife, Nnambi, and the intervention of her aunt, Abi. “Utopia” – the name is at least partially ironic – takes us to St Theresa’s Girls’ School, a prestigious boarding school originally established by missionaries (of course), and now a highly sought-after private school. In the backdrop of heightened political conflict, and the violent ouster of Idi Amin, Kirabo grows up quickly, coming to terms with feeling out of place because of her childhood upbringing, finding her own place, and meeting Sio again, but now as a teenager. “When the Villages Were Young” takes us back forty years and two generations, to colonial 1930s Uganda, when Alikisa and Nsuuta were growing up best friends in the village, and tells the story of their origins, from their eyes. “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other” finally brings us back to the present, and to Nattetta, where the choices that Alikisa and Nsuuta made ring down the decades, and entwine with the choices before Kirabo and the decisions she makes about her own life.

As I read The First Woman – I finished it in three feverish sittings – I was reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. This is not merely because The First Woman, too, is framed around the theme of female friendship – and how that friendship evolves within the context of both patriarchy and class – but also because of how deftly and how hauntingly it lays bare an important insight: that however much we may struggle against them, the web of institutions within which we live our lives will always place limits upon our horizons. Kirabo’s “two selves” is the starkest illustration of this, the web of constraints made flesh – and Kirabo’s desire to get rid of her second self, which is what triggers her first visit to Nsuuta – indicates that often, the struggle itself is exhausting. A conversation between Nsuuta and an older Kirabo, in the middle of the book, reveals this conflict at the heart of their relationship: “Being rebellious is not something I can afford“, Kirabo tells an angered Nsuuta, and that “there are ways of playing with fire without getting burnt.” Nsuuta’s own fate – a consequence of too much rebelling, according to the village – perhaps exerts its own pull upon Kirabo, whose own resistance – as she articulates it herself – is of a more contained kind (enabled, no doubt, by the fact that the 1970s are very different from the 1930s).

But the web of constraints is also visible in the behaviour of the men in The First Woman. There are three prominent male characters in the book – Kirabo’s grandfather Miiro, her father Tom, and Sio. None of these three men are crude patriarchs, of the kind who seek to use their social power to actively subordinate and suppress women. Miiro, in fact, goes out of his way to ensure that Kirabo has as much freedom as he can give her; Tom’s patriarchal impulses are at their worst in his treatment of his second wife, but even there, it is he who gives way in their conflict, and it is he who ensures Kirabo’s own further education; Sio belongs to the generation where ideas of equality are no longer entirely alien, and his treatment of Kirabo – at least in the beginning – reflects the struggles of a man coming to terms with that changed world. Nonetheless, while Miiro, Tom, and Sio are not actively bad persons, throughout the book, and to varying degrees, they do actively bad things to the women with whom they share social and private space. Sometimes, this is followed by (partially sincere) apologies, which everyone sees through (“How Zungu. You go and hurt someone and then when it comes to apologizing you help yourself to crying as well.”), and sometimes – as in the case of Miiro, who is perhaps the most sympathetic male character in the novel – a wry acknowledgment that within the web of constraints, this is as far as he can go and all that he can do, limited and insufficient though it is.

Tellingly, however, Makumbi does not turn The First Woman into a story only about patriarchy. Like Ferrante, she is keenly conscious about class, and how it intersects and feeds off patriarchy. In The First Woman, class creeps in not only through Kirabo’s experiences at St. Theresa’s, but also in one of the central female friendships of the novel, between Kirabo and Giibwa. Kirabo – who finds herself sidelined at St. Theresa’s – is nonetheless in a position of power in Nattetta, and as she and Giibwa grow up, their class differences colour and taint their friendship in unpredictable – and ultimately – tragic ways. As Giibwa says, in one of the most memorable dialogues of the novel:

‘Kiraboo, Kirabo,” Giibwa sighed exhaustion. “Fellow woman? Me and you? How? Look, not all women are women. Some women, like you, are men. You go to school, get degrees, then get jobs and employ women like me to be women for you at home. Some women, like me, are children.

The conflict between Kirabo and Giibwa thus complicates a central insight that Nsuuta communicates to Kirabo at the beginning of the story. “My grandmothers called it kweluma,” she says, “that is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor you bite yourself.” Nsuuta – who has seen this in her own life – communicates this as a form of warning, and then is forced to watch helplessly as the tale repeats itself, generations on – because not all oppressions are equal.

Here again, thus, The First Woman tells us how, so often, the best will and the strongest heart in the world is not always able to transcend the crushing weight of institutions, and that if anything needs to be dismantled and rebuilt, it is those institutions – and not human nature.

So at one level, The First Woman is a story of rebellion, of its limits, and how oppressive institutions ultimately cage and constrain both those whom they subordinate and those whom they empower, although in very different ways. But at the same time, The First Woman is not simply reducible to structures. Like the best fiction, it creates a character who is truly memorable. Kirabo is human, very human, and her travails immediately capture readers: throughout the novel, I found myself following her journey with an almost terrifying sense of involvement: I cheered internally every time she overcame a barrier, I felt a sense of dread every time she was (I knew!) on the cusp of making a bad decision, and by the end, her fate – and the fate of those around her – felt deeply personal. Perhaps the reason why this is so is because, with Kirabo, Makumbi has achieved a character who does have a series of choices before her, constrained though they might be, and each choice – readers can see – is going to open up a path, or close it, in a world that is no longer actively hostile, but nonetheless continues to lay down a whole set of snares and traps. It is this that makes Kirabo’s journey so very compelling: in some way – to use a fraught term – if feels universal, or as universal as something can feel in our riven world.

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Filed under African Writing, Jennifer Matumbi, Uganda