Diverse December

January 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

As 2015 is now over, I’ve been able to add up my reading numbers for the year. In total, I read 88 books. Of these, 19 were by non-white authors (a category that seems even more problematic after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates). Eight of these were in December; so eleven over the rest of the year. Not a great tally. For some sort of comparison, my #readwomen numbers were 44 women, 40 men. That’s a category I never pay attention to at the moment of reading since my numbers are almost always evenly split. Clearly Diverse December was something I needed to do. With the exception of Farzana Doctor (library copy), all these books were already on my shelves; I just needed a reason to move them right up to the top of the TBR. So thanks to Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby for inspiring me.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book sort of blew my mind. It was like being on the other side of one of those articles that say, Hey, men, just thought you might want to know that this is what it’s like being a woman Every Single Day. The articles that talk about minimising and brushing things off and being polite, and that open the eyes of even the most feminist of men. Reading this book is neither easy nor comfortable (and will send you off to find out about other things too) but it’s important. Structured as a letter to Coates’ fifteen-year-old son and containing all the history and street smarts he wants to be sure to pass on, Between the World and Me is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year, and its place on so many best-of-2015 lists is well justified.

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All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor

This is Canadian writer Doctor’s third novel. She writes really well about families and relationships. All Inclusive is about Ameera, a travel rep working in Mexico who is getting into trouble for sleeping with the tourists–couples only. Her mother is white Canadian and her father—whom she never met—was from India, but died the day after her conception in the 1985 Air India bomb, something that neither Ameera nor her mother know when the novel opens. It’s a moving and well-plotted story, with lots of holiday sex (it sounds incongruous with the subject matter but it works). For another recent fictional take on the Air India disaster, read Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

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By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar)

This is the first book I’ve ever read from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. It’s the tale of a childhood spent on an isolated Atlantic island, a place where religion and superstition mingle with fascinating results. As devastating as Job’s tribulations and the plagues of Egypt combined, the island’s tragedies are brutal and relentless. Told in part like a folk tale and translated well by Jethro Soutar, By Night the Mountain Burns works towards a moving conclusion.

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Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni

The second And Other Stories title on my Diverse December list, this is possibly the first book I’ve read set in the Philippines (a theme seems to be emerging…). Keni is a physician who was born in London to Indian parents, so the choice of the Philippines is intriguing. I didn’t know this until after I’d finished reading, but I did notice that the novel doesn’t fetishise poverty and rose-tint hardship in the way some novelists do when writing about their parents’ country of origin: perhaps writing about a different country altogether makes this easier. Joseph, the main character, is a young houseboy in the household of Mary Morelos, a widow whose left-wing convictions put her at odds with many of Esperanza Street’s richer inhabitants. When a local man wants to develop the street, destroying businesses and homes in the process, she comes into conflict with much of the neighbourhood. Esperanza Street is a well put together novel that combines socioeconomics, politics, family relationships and personal responsibility, and allows its characters to be both familiar and unfamiliar to western readers.

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The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar

Sukkar was just twenty-one when she wrote this portrayal of an autistic boy as the Syrian war gathers pace around him and his family. You’ll have to forgive a slightly tedious oversignposting of autism in the early pages, but you really should forgive it because this book is quite devastating. It has had extremely little press attention, as evidenced by the fact that my own Three Rs interview with Sukkar is on the first page of Google results of a search for the author’s name. I believe it was the first novel about the conflict when it was published (Eyewear, 2014); it might well still be the only one. When most of the mentions we hear about Syrian people are to do with refugee camps and asylum seeking, it’s good to be reminded that there was a before—and also to see how quickly and violently a comfortable existence can be turned upside down.

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The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

A fantastic primer on Indigenous issues from one of North America’s great popular scholars. This should be required reading for all newcomers to Canada, all high-school students, and pretty much the entire adult population. King has a breezy, funny style that makes the difficult subject matter penetrable and comprehensible. He does not call the book a history, so let’s say that it’s an incredibly important back story that adds valuable context to our understanding of events from the beginnings of colonialism in North America to the position we find ourselves in today.

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Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

This was actually a reread; I read this book when it first came out and fully intended to review it here, but life got in the way. Nikesh Shukla is the writer whose comments about the lack of diversity in the books being given away for World Book Night prompted Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby to set up Diverse December in the first place (and it has now become @readdiverse2016).

Meatspace is the story of the hilarious collision between our online worlds and meatspace (formerly known as IRL, or in real life). It’s not the decade-old story of whether we are giving up too much of reality by spending so much time immersed in supposedly virtual worlds, but an exploration of what our online personas mean, how important they are professionally and personally, and what happens when people and incidents that you hope are safely confined to one of the worlds come crashing into the other. It’s funny and moving and poignant, and has an impressively light touch with the many political and difficult personal themes it touches.

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 The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated by Andrew Blomfield)

When I started reading for Diverse December it didn’t occur to me that a book from Uzbekistan would be on my list. I pulled Peirene Press’s The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov from the shelf because I initially ignored the “ov” at the end of the last name and made assumptions accordingly. But Ismailov’s story is a fascinating (and sad) one. He is the most widely published Uzbek writer, but his books are banned—even mentioning his name is likely to get you into trouble. He’s lived in exile in the UK since 1992.

The Dead Lake is set in the Kazakh steppe around a former nuclear test site. Yerzhan, the main character, moves from child to 27-year-old adult over the course of this non-chronological novel. The cumulative effect of the 468 nuclear explosions that were carried out at this test site between 1949 and 1989 exceeded the power of the Hiroshima bomb by a factor of 2500. The story is simply and effectively told, and is incredibly powerful. It’s the sort of thing Peirene does exceptionally well, and the sort of thing we need more of in English.

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