What I read in 2020
by Vandana Singh
In 2020 I didn’t get to read much fiction (excluding mystery fiction for stress relief), in part because I was on sabbatical in India for six months, which was complicated by the pandemic, the lockdown and the consequent last minute change in my academic project. I read acres of nonfiction instead; however, I also read some standout fiction, made even more memorable against the dramatic and tumultuous backdrop of this historic Year of the Pandemic. As always, I make an effort to read diverse authors, an immensely rewarding experience, as my notes below indicate. And there’s a tottering pile of unread wonders by my bedside, waiting for that mythical thing, a free moment. In no particular order, here are some highlights of my readings in 2020:
1. When the River Sleeps by Easterine Kire https://zubaanbooks.com/shop/when-the-river-sleeps/
This remarkable novel is set in Northeast India, in the state of Nagaland, where a man haunted by a dream travels through the hills and forests of his people in search of a sleeping river. If you pluck a stone from a sleeping river, it is said, you will gain power. But this journey through the verdant wilderness, enriched by the author’s inside knowledge of Naga cosmology and animated by spirits and magical beings, is a quest for meaning, not power. The main character is not a youthful Chosen One, but a middle aged man called Vilie, who is compelled by his dream to leave a relatively peaceful life as an employee of the Forest Department to go into the unknown. This aspect of the novel – dealing with uncertainty, when the only security comes from trust in others, trust that is sometimes betrayed – seemed especially meaningful when I read it in Delhi in March, just when the pandemic was gaining momentum and the false security that modernity gives us began to slip from our lives. The story is told in lyrical, unpretentious prose, and carries with it something like the cadence of a river, slow and stately in parts, swift and urgent in others.
2. My Father May Be an Elephant and My Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala
This is a collection of luminous short stories by Dalit writer and academic Gogu Shyamala, set in her home state of Telengana, rendered in English from the Telegu by multiple translators. The daughter of agricultural laborers in rural Telengana, her parents worked hard to ensure that she got an education; she ultimately went on to gain a Ph.D. and became a scholar, an activist and a writer. Many of these stories are inspired by her own life. As she says in an interview (https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/gogu-shyamala-being-dalit-and-woman-survival-beyond-victimhood-and-outside-it-41396) , she avoids presenting Dalits as either victims or heroes; she does not shy away from depicting caste violence and everyday prejudice, which are frequent themes, yet her characters are fully human and her prose filled with an ebullience that celebrates the resilience, courage, creativity, and humor of her people. Their intimate knowledge of the land and seasons, the animals and landscape, makes the natural world come alive, and sometimes blurs the boundary between humans and the rest of nature; one of the stories, for example, is narrated by a village pond. The stories take those of us from privileged backgrounds into another world, which, although it exists in reality, feels like the best of speculative fiction because of its superb worldbuilding, immersing us in a world unfamiliar to most of us until it feels intimately and viscerally real, and doing so with the sureness of a master.
3. Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman
Terra Nullius literally means no man’s land. The title reminds me of watching on TV the celebrations at the start of the LA Olympics decades ago, in which the pioneers were depicted rushing valiantly into an empty United States. Apparently Native Americans had never existed. Unsurprisingly, this attempted erasure is also reflected in classic science fiction; as academics such as John Rieder and writer/editors such as Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan have noted, classic ‘golden age’ science fiction is intimately associated with colonialism from the perspective of the colonizers. Writers from countries or societies that have experienced (and are still experiencing) colonialism are often adept at turning this trope on its head. Indigenous Australian writer Claire G. Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, does a spectacular job of this in her first novel, Terra Nullius. It begins with a young man called Jacky, who is on the run from a missionary re-education school meant to ‘elevate the natives.’ (‘Re-schooling’ for cultural erasure is a tactic used worldwide against Indigenous people, and not just in the past – it is an essential instrument of cultural genocide – consider for example the phenomenon of factory schools operated by big business in India https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/adani-kiss-factory-school). What Claire Coleman does with the theme of colonialism is something the like of which I haven’t seen before, something that only speculative fiction can do. I’m tempted to elaborate, but I shall desist. Readers should experience the power of this astonishing book for themselves. As the words at the back of the book say, ‘Do you recognize this story? Look again.’
4. The Overstory by Richard Powers
This novel recently won the Pulitzer prize, rocking the mainstream literary world because it acknowledges, among other things, that non-humans exist! (I am being a little sarcastic here, in case it isn’t obvious, because a pet peeve I have with much of the modern mainstream Anglophone literature I’ve read is its obsession with the exclusively human (where ‘human’ is limited to white, suburban, privileged people engaged in an endless monotony of self-indulgent misery-making)). There are many pleasures in this book, not least of which are the positively sensuous descriptions of trees, especially the giant redwoods of the West coast, one of which literally has a small lake and trees growing way up among its giant branches. The sections of the book take inspiration from the structure of a tree, and the first, ‘Roots,’ begins with the generational family histories of each of the nine characters. The paeans to the interconnectedness of trees, although beautifully written, stand in (probably unintentional) ironic contrast to the often unsocial, damaged, disconnected and typically individualistic main characters. Although I enjoyed several parts of the book, I would not have thought it worthy of a Pulitzer. Some of the protagonists seem quite unnecessary to the story, while others make a disastrous decision that seems to go against common sense as well as their painstakingly set up characters and histories. If The Overstory is intended to be a space-and-time-spanning American novel, it fails, because – to begin with - everyone except for a couple of Asian-American characters - is white. (The portrayal of the Indian-American character made me wince more than a bit). Indigenous people are invoked once off-stage, then they make a cameo appearance near the end, and that’s it. Interestingly, the powers-that-be are also invisible; the forces of destruction are not seen, not named, except indirectly through standoffs with loggers. Thus we never get a sense of why the world is so hopeless – and hopelessness (except in unconvincing techno-visionary imaginings of one of the characters) seems to be the ultimate message, because no other way out is presented. To me this seems to be a result of the stupendous lack of speculative imagination. Many people I know love this book, in part (I suspect) because reading some of the most poetic sections about trees seems to assuage a little of the species loneliness with which we moderns are afflicted – indeed, the most triumphant and enduring characters in the books are the trees. One cannot help but weep when some of them are destroyed. Worth a read for that alone; ambitious, but with major limitations and flaws.
5. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
This novel by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder, is set on an unnamed island where the Memory Police can cause any object or concept – or person – to cease existing. For instance, at one point the inhabitants are told that birds will no longer exist from that day onward, so the people gather to open the cages of their pet birds and let them fly away. After that day they might see feathered, flying things around, but cannot conceive of them as birds, nor imagine any relationship with them. But there are people who cannot forget, and they must keep their intact memories a secret, else the Memory Police will take them away. The protagonist, a young woman, lost her mother to them for that reason; when the story opens, her father, an ornithologist, is also dead. The woman is a writer, a storyteller, and as she witnesses her world shrink with the disappearance of what was once familiar and conceivable, she attempts to rescue others like her mother before they are taken away. As the Memory Police ramp up their dreadful work, we see our main character become less and less real to herself, and yet she retains a sense of self through the creation of story, and through a final act of resistance. Disturbingly resonant in a time when authoritarian regimes are trying to rewrite history, geography, and reality, the book leads inexorably to its stark conclusion. (Reading this, I was reminded that about half of the six-thousand-odd languages of the world are under threat of extinction, and with them concepts and ways of being that are potentially as important for our survival as biological diversity (see for example https://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_dreams_from_endangered_cultures?language=en)). In understated, almost journalistic prose, the book tells me that we cannot be free alone, that our freedom is contingent upon the freedom of others, that memory is both individual and collective, and that without stories, without imagination, we are lost. And that any system which builds its power through erasure – of people, concepts, ideas, words - plants the seeds of its own destruction.
6. Guido Brunetti mystery series by Donna Leon
I mention this wonderful series because of many reasons – one being the marvelously detailed setting, Venice. Although I have never been there and can’t speak for the accuracy of the depiction of the place and culture, Donna Leon apparently lived there for thirty years. The waterways and palazzos, the way the light falls at different times of the year, the seasons, the lagoons, the acqua alta floods - all come alive in a wonderfully immersive way. I read mysteries mostly for light reading before bedtime, to engage another part of my brain when I am tired, and forget them rather quickly, but this series escapes being merely trivial because it gives us the triple pleasures of place as character, intricate mysteries set in a social context, and well drawn characters. The philosophical and ethical questions that arise in crimes as dire as murder, in a city that is fast changing due to modernity and an influx of refugees, are not dismissed or ignored; instead our hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti, engages with them as he works out the solution to the mystery. The best part for me is the depiction of the characters, especially Brunetti, who goes against the current popular (and annoyingly repetitive) stereotype of the detective: a man who is disturbed, antisocial, or enraged on a near-permanent basis due to some past tragedy, but of course, has a heart of gold under all those layers of hard-boiledness. By contrast Brunetti is refreshingly human, a grown-up, a decent man, happy with his lot in life, including his academic wife and two teenage children. A man who is secure enough to not play power games, yet bold and clever when he must be, to get around the corrupt and inefficient people above and around him, he is susceptible to springtime, opera, his wife, and the beauty of his city. And Signorina Elettra, fashionista and diva of deviousness, who is fortunately on Brunetti’s side, is a delight. As must be relevant in any city built on water, environmental concerns are a frequent theme, but presented in a way that brings out the reality of the problem alongside the indifference with which most urbanites consider these issues.
7. Finally I must mention two short story collections that are not out as yet but will be this year, 2021, from two remarkable South Asian writers. I was privileged to read these before they were put in final form for the publishers. Usman Tanveer Malik’s Midnight Doorways and Anil Menon’s The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun are going to be out this year, and I hope that both will make it to multiple best-of lists for collections.
Midnight Doorways https://www.usmanmalik.org/product/midnight-doorways-fables-from-pakistan/ is a collection of lyrically told, atmospheric stories that shine the light into the darkest reaches of the human psyche – and they are also very Pakistani and very South Asian. Reading them, I was reminded of sitting in the dark with cousins as a teen in India, each of us taking turns to relate supernatural stories during the frequent summer power outages. We terrified ourselves silly. It’s probably because of those experiences that I don’t generally read horror. But Usman’s stories are not retellings of old tales, dressed up to scare another generation of youngsters. They make something new out of the amalgam of ancient culture and modernity, engaging with issues of love, betrayal, longing and justice in the world we live in now, reminding the reader that electric bulbs are no protection, not against the darkness within, nor the darkness beyond the circle of light by which you are reading this. And that horrible things happen in the world, and to look upon them and shudder to the depths of one’s soul is one way we learn to recognize and confront these horrors.
Meanwhile, Anil Menon’s stories, collected in The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun (coming out from Hachette), play with an eccentric mélange of science fictional, fantastic and realist themes, with India a frequent setting. Anil (http://anilmenon.com/) is one of the most erudite and well-read writers out there, who can quote an obscure Western philosopher in one breath and ancient Indian love poetry in the next, and is himself eminently quotable. This inconceivable variety and depth of knowledge allows him to wander across multiple boundaries not limited to the geographical – fact and fiction, spec fic and realism, poetry and table of contents. Odd things happen in the most ordinary circumstances (many of the settings are domestic) and what is real and what is not real become obscured. The ability to reveal the peculiar and extraordinary within the most everyday situations is well displayed in this collection. The stories are invariably clever, in the best tradition of the literature of ideas, but are also emotionally resonant, rendered with characteristic elegance and wit.
With these two, it is already a good year for short story collections.
Vandana Singh is the author of Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (Small Beer Press, 2018), The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (Zubaan, 2009), numerous fine short stories, and two novellas published by Aqueduct Press in the Conversation Pieces series: Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances, which won the Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Award and was on the Otherwise Award (at the time of the award, Tiptree) Honor List. She lives near Boston, where she teaches physics.