Monthly Archives: December 2020

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.

Africa

  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.

Europe

  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.

India

  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.

Non-Fiction/History

  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.

Poetry

  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!

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“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