At the end of this tumultuous year, it is tempting to want to move on and train our gaze onto the new. Like many of us, I imagine, I’ve been thinking about what reading and writing can do—politically, socially. To me, these seemingly solitary acts encourage empathy, curiosity, engagement, and self-scrutiny. I hope, too, that they force us to look, carefully and critically, at our present lives in the context of the past and the future. Many writers I’ve long admired and enjoyed have books coming out this year (J.M. Coetzee, Joan Didion, George Saunders, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Hari Kunzru) as well as writers newer to me whose earlier books looked thoughtfully and unflinchingly at the history and the present (Jesmyn Ward, Han King, and Viet Thanh Nguyen). I’m also incredibly excited to read books by friends and colleagues and contributors whose writing has inspired and energized me (Robert Long Foreman, Emily Ruskovitch, Marc McKee, Ian Stansel, Wendy Oleson). But I’ve chosen to focus this post on writers who are very new to me. As I looked back over this list, I saw some common themes developing. Each of these books, in varied ways, is engaging with questions of place and belonging in a quickly changing world. Through ghost stories, dystopian futures, and quieter realism, these novels and stories seem prescient in the questions they are asking about our new year. The close of 2016 also marks the end of my role as fiction editor at Memorious. I feel privileged to have been in the company of so many generous writers and readers and editors at the journal.
American War by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, April 4, 2017)
Akkad’s novel takes place in 2074 and imagines a second American Civil War. At its center is Sarat Chestnut, a young girl who grows up witness to flooding and a sky filled by unmanned drones. After her father dies, she grows up at Camp Patience, a community for displaced persons. Here is what Emily St. John Mandel has to say about the novel: “American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.”
The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong (Graywolf Press, March 7, 2017)
The description of Yujoo’s novel reads a bit like Lord of the Flies set at a Korean grade school. The story follows two girls, one spoiled and the other nearly invisible. Here is what Graywolf says about the novel: “At school, their fellow students, whether lucky or luckless or unlucky, seem consumed by an almost murderous rage. Adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by cruelty and soul-crushing hierarchies. Then, one day, the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks. This sinister but initially inconsequential act unlocks a series of events that end in horrible violence. But that is not the end of this eerie, unpredictable novel. A teacher, who is also this book’s author, wakes from an intense dream. When she arrives at her next class, she recognizes a student: the Child, who knows about the events of the novel’s first half, which took place years before. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.”
2084: The End of the World by Boualem Sansal, translated by Alison Anderson
(Europa Editions, January 31, 2017)
Sansal’s novel is in conversation with George Orwell’s 1984. It takes place in Abistan, a kingdom honoring the prophet Abi, where remembering is outlawed and citizens are surveilled at all times. Individual thought is forbidden, but a group of independent thinkers and outlaws live hidden in caves, where they plan a revolution. Europa describes Sansal’s novel: “2084 is a cry of freedom, a call to rebellion, and a gripping satirical novel of ideas.”
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah
(Riverhead Books April 4, 2017)
I’m excited to read Arimah’s collection of stories that engage a range of storytelling strategies and smash fable up against realism. In one story, a woman works as a grief mathematician, whose job it is to “exorcise” trauma and grief from a client’s consciousness. In another story, a woman who longs to have a child creates one out of her own hair. Her stories are imaginative and often unsettling, but written with a contrasting matter-of-fact prose. From Aimee Bender: “How does she make these stories so distilled and spacious at the same time? They are drained of excess but still expand so fearlessly.”
The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar
(And Other Stories, August 2, 2017)
And Other Stories press is publishing some really exciting translations, and I’m eager to read this novel crafted out of first-hand accounts of refugee migrations. Here is how the press describes The Gurugu Pledge: “On Mount Gurugu, overlooking the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the North African coast, desperate migrants gather before attempting to scale the city’s walls and gain asylum on European soil. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel has written an urgent novel, by turns funny and sad, bringing a distinctly African perspective to a major issue of our time.”
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin, May 2, 2017)
Ko’s novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice. The story follows eleven-year old Deming Guo who is adopted by a white couple after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, never comes home from her job at a nail salon. Laila Lalami describes the novel as “a rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.”
(And briefly, because I’ve already exceeded my limit! SJ Sindu’s A Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrashnan, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Things we Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriques, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts.)
Joanna Luloff is a fiction editor at Memorious. Her short story collection The Beach at Galle Road was published by Algonquin Books in 2012. Her novel is forthcoming from Algonquin. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.
For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.