2020 has truly been a year of turmoil and adversity, but that doesn’t mean it stopped the literature industry from producing new gems. Our shifting cultural climate has been met with a new wave of prose and poetry that addresses issues of injustice on a deeper level, and now more than ever, books are providing us with an outlet for the powerlessness we’re feeling due to the effects of this year’s chaos. In order to be culturally responsible literary citizens, we need to expand our horizons and develop as wide of a cultural canon as we can. I’ve compiled a list of 2020’s best inclusive titles and while the JKM Library is currently closed for the winter season before the next semester, upon our reopening, patrons can utilize E-ZBorrow and Interlibrary Loan to request newer titles that we may not have on our own shelves.
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich is known for her impressive blend of historical and literary fiction, highlighting the struggles of Native Americans suffering the effects of colonialism. The Night Watchman is loosely based on Erdrich’s grandfather’s experience working as a night watchmen during the Native dispossession era. One of the novel’s protagonists, Patrice, desires a life outside of the reservation and rejects the matriarchal roles that are set out for her, longing to move to Minneapolis to follow the lead of her older sister. The second hero, Thomas, is a night watchman and Chippewa council member on their North Dakota reservation, fighting against Congress’ new “termination” bill to eradicate Native communities. Erdrich does not romanticize life on the rez–rather, she paints a colorful cast of characters that encapsulates the essence of the Native struggle, one that is poignant, witty, and tender.
The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi
Powerhouse newcomer Akwaeke Emezi third novel addresses the intersection of African identity with queer identity, highlighting otherness, isolation, and the feeling of finding home. A deep, complex mystery that finds itself in the middle of political reform in the 1990s Nigeria, The Death of Vivek Oji forces the reader into complicated literary disorientation. The titular protagonist Vivek struggles with dissociation and a sense of belonging, befriending the mixed-race children of immigrant mothers to Africa and struggling with what he considers a “sinful” relationship. Emezi’s swirling prose coupled with the layered cultural narrative present in the novel creates a tension that is so hard to achieve in literary fiction, but when attained, is incredibly significant.
Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, by Julian K. Jarboe
This is my personal favorite title of 2020, and for good reason. Jarboe’s debut fiction collection covers everything from cyberpunk dystopia, body horror, mythical lore, subtle romance, and stories of abusive religious institutions. All of these vastly different narratives share a common thread, though: the constant threat of being stripped of our individuality, whether it be our culture, our community, our physical vessel. Jarboe’s literary voice is spectacular from segment to segment and the pacing never falls flat. I particularly enjoyed the stories “I Am a Beautiful Bug!,” which is part love letter to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and part transgender allegory, and “Self Care,” an antiestablishment stream-of-consciousness narrative that highlights the end of times at the hands of ostentatious religiosity and greed.
Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar
Loosely inspired by Akhtar’s own experiences as an Arab-American following 9/11, Homeland Elegies tells the story of a family struggling with feelings of national dispossession. While the story is fictional, the content is autobiographical in nature, drawing directly on the oppression that Akhbar felt in the field of the humanities. He makes you long for an America that never truly existed, one that could have hyperbolized peace and unity. Rather, we’re exposed to a more complex, pessimistic America whose racial bias and detestment of immigrants bleeds through to our everyday life whether we’re cognizant of it or not.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot, by Mikki Kendall
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that racial injustice has always been a reality, it has only become more apparent in the media because we have more access to the struggles of others. Kendall discusses the overwhelming power of white feminism, and how so often gender overpowers other facets of identity. The crux at which true allyship happens includes race, class, ability, and sexuality, and Kendall’s thesis statement enforces that all issues of denial to access are issues of feminism. The critique of mainstream feminist scholars is biting and well-written, tackling issues like food insecurity, education, medical care, and more in its analysis. Kendall truly reminds us that it’s not feminism unless it’s inclusive and intersectional.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong
Part immigration memoir, part critical cultural studies, Hong’s essays directly confront modern-day racial consciousness here in America with a twist. What she calls “minor feelings” are stand-ins for the grief, shame, and internalized notions about race that we face in a society that is so inherently whitewashed. Hong works to unpack this implicit bias of self and others in a way that is both intellectual and entertaining, peppering in stories from her youth to punctuate the more theoretical elements of the text. Park discusses the stereotypes typically inscribed upon Asian Americans; she manages to blend the educational with the conversational in a way that even the newest of allies can process.
Me and White Supremacy, by Layla Saad
What started as an Instagram challenge to encourage white people to address their implicit biases became one of the year’s best tools for white allies to use to confront their implicit biases surrounding race and ethnicity. Saad creates a resource that elevates BIPOC people and teaches white people about their levels of privilege and unconscious engagement in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy without forcing people of color to exert their emotional labor. So often, communities exploit the emotional and mental work of its scholars of color and assume they will be educators for white people without providing compensation. This book can provide that insight for white allies to understand that they must use their power to support people of color, and that with privilege comes a special position to support others.
The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
DACA recipient Villavicencio decided to start writing this collection in response to the 2016 election results, and in it paints a beautiful depiction of undocumented immigrants in the United States. She meets with immigrants all over the country and learns their stories in order to come up with some semblance of her own. It is a touching, unrestrained take on refuge and sanctuary, how with citizenship comes privilege, and the denial to access that goes hand-in-hand with undocumented status. Rather than living in the shadows of her own identity, Villavicencio advocates on behalf of other undocumented people in an unflinching critique on how our society treats those simply seeking solace in the world.
Just Us: An American Conversation, by Claudia Rankine
A spiritual successor to her collection Citizen, Rankine tackles the big issues of white supremacy in a jarring collection of poems, short prose, and art. Just Us highlights the microcosms of Americana, a nation divided, and how indifference has made even liminal spaces hostile for nonwhite individuals. Rankine dives into the politics of politeness, calling attention to the way that privilege often encourages the majority to turn a blind eye to oppression and marginalization. Her poetic voice is blatant and urgent while still providing a strong aesthetic flow, a varied poetic voice that has cemented itself as one of the most striking of the 21st century.
Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems, by Wanda Coleman.
Poetry spanning a forty-year body of work, Wicked Enchantment is a consciously anti-racist collection that confronts marginalization with humor, ennui, and sometimes anger. Coleman’s legacy on the poetry community is insurmountable, and with an introduction and edits from the great Terrence Hayes, she so rawly and honestly depicts the progression of racism in America. The poems in this collection are not about being pretty or being pleasing. They are about feeling and filling a void where society has failed us. In addition to the overarching theme of racial injustice, Coleman also tackles concepts like mental illness, wealth inequality, and the failings of the healthcare system particularly against Black women. This is a dense read, but a very worthwhile one.
Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Poems, by Valzhyna Mort
Belarusian poet Mort discusses the traumatic intergenerational legacy of war and propaganda in this heart-wrenching collection of love letters to the dead. She weaves historical elements like World War II, Soviet labor camps, and tyrannical dictatorships throughout the text, tracing the timeline of her native country’s development to her and her family’s experiences in these toxic, violent environments. Tethering her own coming-of-age with the mythology of a fragmented nation, Mort creates a lyricism of ghosts, an existence that will always be permeated by the atrocities committed against or by our ancestors. Music for the Dead and Resurrected confronts the American historical myths and forces the reader to take an uncomfortable but nonetheless poetic look at how they got to where they are.
Inheritance, by Taylor Johnson
A recent release, Taylor Johnson asserts the precariousness of poor Black identity in a nation that constantly surveils our most at-risk populations in this collection. They elaborate in their poems about the intrinsic link of capitalism to the exploitation of bodies of color, and with broad lyricism, Johnson opens a dialogue as to what a world without the boundaries of class and financial standing would look like. Cynicism of cultural monoliths permeate the text as Johnson conveys their theories through the lens of radical love and sex. There is a stark juxtaposition of lightheartedness with the prison industrial complex, pleasure against poverty. This jarring dichotomy conveys the meaning of the collection: suffering will always plague us so long as we allow ourselves to adhere to oppressive cultural rules.
Best Children’s and Young Adult
You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson
Johnson’s debut novel is one that is sweet and fun, typical of YA, but tackles the very real issues of growing up a minority in small-town America. Protagonist Liz Lighty views herself as being “too Black, too poor, too awkward” to be taken seriously in her rural, conservative community, and she desires nothing more than to break out of this restrictive town and attend a prestigious university. Johnson highlights the very real threat of financial insecurity that plagues teens and young adults, and Liz’s reluctant journey to attain prom royalty to assure financial aid is an interesting subversion of the traditional high school narrative. It’s so important to see young, empowered Black girls in stories where they have agency and dreams, and where their hardships are not fetishized–Johnson creates a new kind of Black hero in Liz, one in which many young viewers can see bits of themselves.
A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, by Hank Green
The follow-up to Hank Green’s bestseller An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is just as stunning as its predecessor, a science-fiction tale that tackles concepts like colonization, decimation of lands, and class consciousness. Green’s social commentary is presented in a youth-friendly way, fast-paced and action-packed. The elements of mystery and eclectic cast of characters is what will draw you in, but the interesting theories surrounding technology, reality, and virtuality will keep you coming back for more. Considering Green’s science background, there’s validity to the scientific elements of the text, but it’s not so academic that it’ll go over the head of the readers.
Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo
In a similar style to her bestseller The Poet X, Acevedo crafts a novel-in-verse that ties together the notions of togetherness and grief in an incredibly touching testament to the power of familial love. Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York City, are sisters who are totally unaware of one another’s existence until a horrible tragedy brings them together. Their intrinsic connection forces them to think about the boundaries between their cultures and what sorts of secrets lurked within their families. The blend of poetry and prose makes for an easy reading experience and the content helps to show the subtle differences between groups of Latinx identity.
The Degenerates, by J. Albert Mann
Disability is a subject of intersectionality that we don’t see too often in modern fiction, or at least when it’s not portrayed in the unfortunate genre of “inspiration porn.” The Degenerates does not glamorize the disabled experience in the case of mental, physical, and learning disabilities. Taking place in an institution for the mentally ill or disabled, these girls are not portrayed as weak, simple, or naive. Instead, they are empowered and fierce young women, dedicated to escaping the system that oppresses them. The Degenerates also doesn’t shy away from the severity of institutionalization–the interactions are coarse, belittling, and show the reality of living with a disability in a world that does not provide access or accommodations.