“What I read in 2020”: Writers Select
We asked some of the prominent writers and academics from Bangladesh about the books they most enjoyed in 2020. Some of them confessed that the year has been too difficult to find much time for reading. Others named a diverse line up of books, from fiction set in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Florida, to nonfiction exploring current affairs, poetry, history and memoir.
Writer, academic, translator
Author of Once More into the Past (Daily Star Books, 2020)
This was a bad year in so many ways but it was a good year to catch up on reading. One book which bowled me over and which I realise I should have read a long time back is Akhteruzzaman Elias's masterpiece, Khowabnama (Mawla Brothers, 1996). I believe it's being translated now; if it finds a good international publisher it will surely be on the shelves with the greatest novels of the last century and place Elias on the shelves with Hardy and Faulkner as a literary chronicler who made a whole region come alive at a certain moment of history. Another novel that overwhelmed me in the Covid-19 year but had been gathering dust in my shelves earlier is Jose Saramagao's Blindness (Harcourt, 1998, tr. Giovanni Pontiero), but read my Daily Star response to it in the article "A Pandemic Novel for Now and Forever".
As the year ends, I am being astounded by Shashi Tharoor's immensely relevant and learned but completely absorbing book, The Battle of Belonging (Aleph Book Company, 2020), and I can't resist telling you how the Nobel Prize awards alerted me to Louis Gluck's quiet but subtle poems of emotions evoked oh so delicately!
Poet, translator, critic, academic
Of books published this year, I have read with particular pleasure two books that happen to be very different in subject matter. A Little History of Poetry by John Carey (Yale University Press, 2020) engagingly blends biographical and historical information with insightful textual commentary, and in just 80,000 words covers almost everything poetic from Gilgamesh to Maya Angelou and Les Murray. Has China Won (PublicAffairs, 2020) by Kishore Mahbubani is a timely and brilliant analysis of issues arising out of China's meteoric rise as an economic superpower. It includes wise advice that the West had better heed.
Writer, academic, translator
It is hard to find books on Indian Aryan tribes and learn about their traditions and experiences. I found both in the writings of Verrien Elwin, edited by Mahashweta Debi in an edition published by the Shahittya Academy in 2001.
Professor of Literature, University of Dhaka
In 2020, I read few books of fiction. I re-read The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz (Oxford University Press, 1978, tr. A. Davidson). Other books include: Meena Alexander's Name Me A Word (Yale University Press, 2018), Vivek Bald's Bengali Harlem (Harvard University Press, 2013), Shahidha Bari's Dressed (Jonathan Cape, 2019), Moira Egan's Synaesthesium (Encounter Books, 2017), Janice Haaken's Pillar of Salt (Rutgers University Press, 2000), Toni Morrison's The Measure of Our Lives (Knopf, 2019), Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003), Chuck Palahniuk's Consider This (Grand Central Publishing, 2020), Ntozake Shange's For Coloured Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (Scribner, 1997), Ravi Shanker's The Many Uses of Mint (Recent Work Press, 2018), and Lakhsmi Vishwanathan's Women of Pride (Roli Books, 2008).
Author, development worker
Although originally a poem about love, verses of the Prophet Solomon have been performed in synagogues for the past 3,000 years, yet never have they lost their depth and essence, even when translated into Bangla. This year, I was completely enchanted by the Soleiman Geetika in poet Sajjad Sharif's translation.
Writer & anthropologist
Author of the Bengal Trilogy (Daily Star Books)
The book that bowled me over this year is Leesa Gazi's Hellfire (Westland Publishers, 2020, tr. Shabnam Nadiya). It was published in Bangla 10 years ago as Rourob, but I read it for the first time in English. It's a surprising, dark, thought-provoking novel which has haunted my dreams since I read it. The translation captures the humour and tone of Leesa Gazi's writing perfectly. I cannot recommend it enough.
Writer and translator
Among a handful of books that blew me away this year, Barnali Saha's The North End (Pathak Samabesh, 2020) has a simple story—the narrator is in Dhaka asking a friend to help her leave her husband and fly off to her Danish boyfriend. Saha uses this springboard to explore why the pricey coffee joint The North End has eight branches, all in Dhaka, and one in Ukhiya, the remote border town hosting the biggest Rohingya camp, globalization, international aid, and the refugee crisis. This novel is rooted in desh while it casts a keen eye on the bigger world out there and does so utilising a female voice that is contemporary, urban and self-aware.
Short and scary, Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (OneWorld Publications, 2018; tr. Megan McDowell) is intriguingly structured through two sets of nestled dialogues. As Amanda lies dying, her friend Carla's child David speaks in her ear, pushing her to recount her conversations with Carla over the last few days. There's talk of mysterious "worms in the body", "dew" on the grass that's actually pesticides, this town where children aren't "born right" anymore. Beautifully translated, the unease builds till the ending which doesn't provide answers—but by the time you get there, you don't need one.
And in Tara Westover's Educated (Random House, 2018), born in an ultraconservative survivalist family in the LDS community of rural Idaho, Tara first sets foot in a classroom at 17, eventually attending Cambridge and Harvard. The book is a visceral, violent, but beautifully wrought exploration of the meaning of family and a sense of self.
Writer, translator, development worker
Author of Fragments of Riversong (Daily Star Books, 2013), Editor of Lifelines
Written by the veteran Florida-based novelist Hiaasen, Squeeze Me (Knopf, 2020) manages to satirise what many of us would consider beyond satire—namely, an American president who spends his much of time in his Florida resort, cleverly named Casa Bellicosa (a play on this man's "leadership" style), surrounded by his fawning, racist fan club. From the orange-shaded president's bone deep hatred of migrants to his obsession with his tanning bed, Hiaasen spins a tale of an all-too-recognisable president codenamed Mastodon by the Secret Service, and his disgusted trophy wife, codenamed Mockingbird. Hiaasen then draws in a hilarious cast of misfits to tell a blackly humorous tale where the only illegal alien worth worrying about is a Burmese python. It is the snake that is actually responsible for the disappearance of one of Mastodon's rich acolytes, whose "murder" is perhaps inevitably blamed on an illegal migrant. The latter, who has nothing to do with any of it, becomes the target of a series of rage-tweets, Mastodon's preferred alternative to press briefings, leading to the young man's vilification in social media in a way that renders his innocence largely redundant. Hiaasen's deft storytelling provides some nice touches along the way, some of it laugh out loud humour.
I also enjoyed reading Oyinkan Braithwaite's My Sister, the Serial Killer (Doubleday, 2018). This book tells the story of Korede and Ayoola, a seriously dysfunctional pair of Nigerian siblings. As the elder of the two, Korede has been brought up to protect Ayoola, who is "the beautiful one". But when this extends to cleaning up after repeated iterations of Ayoola's murderous tendencies, the reader is left wondering what really drives Korede to keep rescuing her sister from the messes that Ayoola seems hell-bent on getting herself into. As with almost every example of apparently inexplicable behaviour in real life, there is of course an explanation. But it's a wild ride through a series of brief, intense chapters before the reader discovers what that explanation actually is. For me, the story was a brilliant escape from the challenges of pandemic reality, and a welcome introduction to a writer capable of pulling off such an interesting and unusual writing style.