Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2015, pt. 28: Sofia Samatar

The Pleasures of Reading in 2015
by Sofia Samatar

The books I loved most this year work in a shifting space located somewhere between memoir, poetry, and theory. Ladan Osman’s poetry collection The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony, winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize, bears witness to small moments: a mother buying sugar, a child playing with a doll, a Muslim family receiving free Christmas presents from the Salvation Army. If we can point to the larger significance of these moments—war, poverty, immigration, girlhood, loss—it’s not because they’ve stopped being small, and that’s what I love about this collection: its commitment to lesser things. This commitment is expressed through a constant questioning that refuses grand statements. “Here, I attend to my book of questions,” the poet writes. Her voice won’t step away from itself in the name of any kind of essentialism, it refuses all the pieties, the pressure to perform some version of black female heroism, it refuses, it remains defiantly small, and it’s absolutely vital. “It’s me who’s getting ugly.” “I just need to ventilate.” “Yes, I have been disgusting so much.”

Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue is, you could say, another poetic immigrant memoir, or you could say a meditation on impossible bodies, or you could say a book of spells, an engine, or a fire. It’s overwhelming. I still have trouble talking about this book, even though I did so for three days as part of an online roundtable. Bhanu Kapil has spent years writing about these unnatural or denaturalized bodies—immigrant, monster, schizophrenic, wolf—and Ban is in many ways a distillation of that work. “A book of time, for time and because of it,” she writes. “A book for recovery from an illness.” “A book as much poetry as it is a forbidden or unfunded area of research.” Forbidden, unfunded, dazzling.

Bhanu also keeps an incredible blog. In trying to describe this blog and Keguro Macharia’s—another favorite—I used the expression “life-thinking.” Afterward I discovered the term “autotheory,” a word for writing that integrates autobiography and social criticism, which
is maybe what I mean here. Anyway, I loved Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index, an alphabetical compilation of life, literature, feminism, and film: its brief, cross-referenced entries are both mysterious and precise. A whole world shimmers here. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women is another book that received the high compliment being carried around in my backpack for months after I’d read it: it’s sharp and unflinching and political and Kansas and motherhood and illness and apartments and TV, and you should read the excerpt that made me know I had to have it. Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, translated by Bruce Benderson, is another book that blew me away: it’s both a fierce work of criticism examining the links between the pharmaceutical and pornography industries, and a memoir of Preciado’s use of testosterone every day for one year. Finally, I have to mention Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice (Volume One), edited by Rasheedah Phillips, a collection of essays on time, space, hip-hop, postmodernism, the imagination, and the future.

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the William L. Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She is also a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist and the recipient of the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her new novel The Winged Histories is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2016.

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