Another month has flown by and it seems that we’re heading unrelentingly into summer. Summer in the US midwest is actually the setting for some incredibly productive reading time. If possible, I become even more reclusive than in the winter, as part of a desperate attempt to avoid the heat. Not only am I completely lacking the constitution necessary to enjoy weather above 25C, I also have the unfortunate fairness that seems to go hand-in-hand with being English and white. I burn almost instantaneously. I also have an unabating love for wearing layers that does not lend itself to summer survival. With that, I’m already stocking up on books and working to find the most isolated, covered picnic spots available in the state of Missouri. Wish me luck! In the meantime, I’m here with another edition of The Monthly Reader, pointing you to all of the most interesting articles, interviews, and releases from the literary world in May. Grab a cold drink (or, if you a determined English person like me, an insistently steaming cup of tea) and enjoy!
‘How to Write About Africa‘ by Binyavanga Wainaina (Granta)
This satirical reflection on what it means to write about Africa is easily the most thought-provoking article from the past month. In this piece, Binyavanga Wainaina points to a variety of the tropes, stereotypes, and reflexively-insulting vocabulary utilised by writers describing Africa:
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.”
Wainaina’s piece, an extract from a larger published essay, is a powerful condemnation of attempts to write Africa from the perspective of its otherness. As this essay details, the habitual labels with which Africa is categorised and described in fiction are not restricted to colonial works. The tendency to ascribe Africa a ‘single story’ (in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) did not pass with Rudyard Kipling. Wainaina’s essay points to the importance of expanding our own understanding of Africa as a complicated and incredibly diverse continent, as well as the centrality of efforts to publish and read emergent African voices.
‘The other side of Black Mirror: literary utopias offer the seeds of better real life‘ by Sandra Newman (The Guardian)
In this fascinating article, Sandra Newman reflects on the history of utopian and dystopian fiction, tracing a turn away from the historic utopias inspired by Judeo-Christian visions of Eden toward depictions of a society in which religion and technological innovation have turned mankind into a race of tribalistic cruelty and repression. Newman argues that the contemporary emphasis on literary dystopias feeds from failed 20th century utopian ‘experiments’ (such as Stalin’s Russia). However, she also posits that dystopianism – and the inspiration that conservative politics draws from it – necessarily rejects the realities of political and social movements toward a kind of utopia. It is an interesting argument and one in which Newman premises her vision on the fact that “from the perspective of the 17th century, western Europeans already live in utopia.” Although Newman perhaps misses the mark with regards to the social and political backswing that we are currently experiencing – and, from the perspective of oppressed minorities, rather brushes over some stark global realities – it is an interesting piece. It also connects to my own thoughts on the necessity of dystopian fiction (although I clearly disagree with many aspects of Newman’s argument).
‘Arizona Prisons Urged to Reverse Ban on ‘Chokehold’ Book‘ by Bobby Allyn (NPR)
In our never-ending return to the US prison system’s insistent eradication of prisoner rights, the battle over access to books continues. Last month, I highlighted news of Washington Department of Correction’s efforts to ban book donations to prisoners. Although public outcry forced a swift revocation of these new rules, the department’s policy has led to a necessary examination of the restrictions placed by prisons on access to books. In this newest piece of news, it has emerged that Arizona state corrections are attempting to censor access to a particular book that “…explores the impact of the criminal justice system on black men.” The decision connects to a Supreme Court ruling, in which it was determined that prison officials have the right to ban books deemed to pose a threat to prison security. It is arguable, however, that restricting access to a book that reflects upon judicial treatment of racial minorities represents a subversion of prisoners’ ability to hold officials accountable for discrimination, prejudice, and abuse of power. Whatever your own thoughts on this, it is a vital discussion.
‘Richard Powers: ‘I’ve read more than 120 books about trees’‘ by Alex Preston (The Guardian)
Richard Powers’ The Overstory was certainly one of my favourite 2018 releases (second only to There There by Tommy Orange). It was no surprise to me – although of much celebration – that Powers’ incredible work of eco-fiction (or cli-fi) took this year’s Pulitzer Prize. The novel is an expansively powerful examination of humanity’s relationship with the natural world and our ongoing conceit, as we continue to destroy a habitat that has sustained life for millennia. The Guardian‘s wonderful interview with Powers offers a poignant reflection on the author’s commitment to research-oriented fiction, science, and his role in our “…slowly transforming consciousness.” Powers is a fascinating author, one who utilises science as a foundation for his fiction. As contemporary political actors work to reject science under the guise of faith, authors in the mould of Powers – writing works as emotionally resonant and factually authoritative as The Overstory – are amongst our most vital literary voices.
After Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian, Margaret Busby’s new anthology of writing by African women has been the release I’ve most anticipated from 2019. Busby published a similar anthology back in 1992 but now, almost three decades on, has taken the opportunity to centralise a new cohort of female authors of African descent. While the anthology offers contributions from a variety of well-known authors (including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith), its appeal lies mostly in the pieces authored by those writers less present on the Western literary scene. When one reflects upon the need to avoid ‘single story’ conceptualisations of places as vibrantly diverse as Africa and the homes of its diaspora – as well as the stereotypes toward which Binyavanga Wainaina points – anthologies, such as New Daughters of Africa, are essential.
What I’ve Been Reading
With summer encroaching, I’ve actually managed to spend a good chunk of time among my book collection this month. Some heightened anxiety has meant a return to two of my favourite authors – a re-read of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia collection and a series catch-up with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. It’s not been all about escapes to fictional English utopias, however. May has featured some of the most explicitly violent and stress-inducing fiction that I’ve read to-date. Here’s hoping that June includes reads that fall somewhere on the middle of the spectrum!
– The Well of Lost Plots (Thursday Next #3) by Jasper Fforde
– Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (ed.) Ken Liu
– Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson